Women's college basketball just got a whole lot tougher - and stronger.

The juniors who dominated the game last year are back as seniors, and unlike the men who sometimes leave early to play pro, all of them have returned.

There is a trio of talent at Tennessee: national player of the year Tamika Catchings, Semeka Randall, and Kristen Clement. Even though Tennessee lost last year's national championship to the University of Connecticut, the team will be contenders again this year. Over at UConn, teammates Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova will help defend the team's national title this year. Both were first-team All-Americans. "UConn is unbelievable," says Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly. "But after the top five, you could pick anybody. It will be an interesting year. There's going to be a lot of fluctuation in the polls from 5 to 25."

Q: What makes the Connecticut Huskies the team to beat this year?

A: The Huskies are returning every starter from last season's national championship team. They also have some of the nation's top freshman players and you can bet that coach Geno Auriemma is pumped up for a third title. Senior Abrosimova spent her summer with the Russian national team and competed in the Sydney Olympics. Her name is already being tossed around as a player-of-the-year candidate.

Q: Which other teams have a chance at making the Final Four?

A: Rutgers, a Final Four team last season, is led by respected coach C. Vivian Stringer; and in Notre Dame's corner, point guard Niele Ivey and 6-foot-5 Ruth Riley add depth and strength. Tennessee and Georgia also have a legitimate shot at making the Final Four, and Purdue and Duke could make it to the finals because of strong recruiting classes.

Q: When and where will the 2001 Final Four be held?

A: In St. Louis, on March 30 and April 1. But it's already sold out. Approximately 6,000 tickets were made available to the general public through a drawing conducted by the NCAA in July. Corporate partners and team parties make up the majority of the seating.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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