UNC, UT, Rutgers back in Cleveland

Associated Press • Mar 30, 2007 at 9:42 AM

CLEVELAND - Welcome back, Rutgers, Tennessee and North Carolina. And LSU, it's nice to have you here, too.

This year's Final Four has a very familiar look as the Tar Heels, Lady Vols and Scarlet Knights are all making return visits to Cleveland, this time with more at stake. A year ago, they were all here - along with Purdue - comprising a field worthy of playing for a national championship.

"Oh, that's right," said Bob Starkey, acting LSU coach. "That was the killer regional."

Last year, the Tar Heels advanced by beating the Lady Vols 75-63 to win the Cleveland Regional and earn a spot in the Final Four at Boston. Those two teams will meet again in Sunday's second semifinal after Reuters plays LSU.

The NCAA tournament committee was criticized for loading so many big-name programs into one region, but the fearsome foursome provided local organizers with a terrific test run.

When North Carolina came to Cleveland last year, coach Sylvia Hatchell and her players sported powder-blue T-shirts with the slogan "Rocking, Rolling and Rebounding in Cleveland, Ohio." They'll be wearing them again at Quicken Loans Arena.

Hatchell rocked hers all season to remind her team of its preseason goals.

"We've been talking about Cleveland all year," she said.

Although their road to the last season's Final Four didn't go through Ohio, the Lady Tigers are making their fourth straight appearance in the national semifinals. To Starkey, an LSU assistant for the men's and women's teams, this one means a little more.

"We feel like we really validated our program with this trip," he said. "The first three years we rode Seimone Augustus here; she's the best player in the history of our school. She kind of taught us how to get here. The next step is for us to win a game here, and that's always easier said than done."

Last year, LSU got blown out by Duke 64-45 in the semifinals. In 2005, the Lady Tigers lost to Baylor 68-57, and a year earlier, they fell to Tennessee 52-50.

"Sometimes you've got to get there and see what it's like before you can take that next step," Starkey said. "We've been here, we know what it's like. It's time to try and win a game."

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