Parity is on display in Cleveland

The Cleveland regional produced some excellent basketball in the first two rounds, but most of it was overshadowed by two shots. Two short shots. Two shots as short as a shot can be.

And though Candace Parker's two dunks provided the headlines, the substance of the bracket came from the higher level of competition: Gone are the days when the first two days of the NCAA tournament produced little but blowouts.

Yes, top seeds North Carolina and Tennessee had easy times, although a game Army team stayed with Tennessee longer than most thought it would. But three seed Rutgers needed a couple of late, close charging fouls on Dartmouth to hold off the Big Green. In a performance that matched that of any individual, Dartmouth point guard Angie Soriaga highlighted a superb effort with a 45-foot shot to end the first half. Those were her first points of the game, but she scored 20 in the second half including a three that tied the game with less than a minute left.

Bowling Green and Missouri State gave UCLA and Purdue much more of a game than either team expected. The Falcons stayed with UCLA for the first 10 minutes until UCLA got hot and extended the lead until it hit 20 with 2:39 remaining in the first half. Bowling Green outscored the Bruins 9-3 over the remainder of the first half and then rallied to cut the Bruin lead to six with four minutes into the second half. UCLA pulled away again but it was not until the last five minutes of the game that the Bruins could feel comfortable.

For the Boilermakers, it took a Jody Howell three-point shot with 5:06 remaining in the first half to give Purdue its first lead of the game. The Boilermakers never trailed after that but their lead did not hit double digits until 15 minutes remained in the game.

Vanderbilt was only able to defeat Louisville by 12 points because the Commodores scored the last 13 points of the game -- on their home floor. The run broke up a game that had seen Louisville lead with 2:50 left.

The most impressive performance of the first round was that of Texas Christian. The 11th seeded team lost the player who had led them in scoring, rebounding and assists when junior Natasha Lacy was given a leave of absence for at least the first two rounds of the tournament. The Horned Frogs responded by upsetting the sixth seeded Texas A&M Aggies. Ashley Davis, 20 points and 12 rebounds, led the team while Lorie Butler-Rayford hit two free throws in the closing seconds to clinch the win.

Really, the only disappointment of the first round was the performance of Old Dominion. Despite playing on their home court, the 11th-seeded Lady Monarchs were not competitive in a 15-point loss to seventh seed George Washington.

In the second round, most of the top seeded teams moved on with less trouble.

North Carolina dominated early on Vanderbilt's home court and led virtually the entire game. The Tar Heels, sparked as always by Ivory Latta and Erlana Larkins, built a double-digit lead in the first six minutes and slowly pulled away until they led by 16 early in the second half.

But Vandy didn't go away. The Commodores outscored UNC 14-1 over the next four minutes to pull within three. But the Heels responded as Larkins scored nine of the next UNC 12 points to create a little breathing room. But it wasn't until Latta scored six straight Tar Heel points that they led by a more comfortable margin. Her final basket over that stretch gave UNC a 15-point lead with 5:49 to play. Vandy only scored four points from that point on and North Carolina moved to the Sweet 16.

Tennessee jumped out to a 12-0 lead over George Washington and essentially coasted home. GW made a couple of runs but never really threatened to get in the game. While Parker is never really overshadowed, this win was the result of a balanced Tennessee attack. Shannon Zolman led the team with 19 points. Parker added 15 and Sidney Spencer 12. Nikki Anosike had nine points, but she also contributed 12 rebounds, four assists and some excellent defense.

The game between Purdue and UCLA figured to be one of contrasting styles and it was. Purdue's defense held the vaunted UCLA offense in check as the Bruins missed their last 15 shots and scored only one point in the last 7:23 of the game. During that time, the Boilermakers scored 12 points to turn a four-point UCLA lead into a seven-point Purdue win. Four Purdue players scored in double figures as Purdue defended both its seed and its home court.

The most impressive performance of the second round was that of Rutgers. After looking weak against Dartmouth, the Scarlet Knights hit on all cylinders against TCU. The Horned Frogs started quickly and took an early lead. Rutgers did not lead until a Kia Vaughn jumper made it 13-12 at the 11:48 mark, but once RU got the lead, the Scarlet Knights ran with it. They outscored TCU 28-10 over the remainder of the half and didn's let up after the break. The second half was played with RU's lead ranging between 25 and 35 points.

Rutgers made its name as a defensive monster, and scoring 82 points is noteworthy. Even more impressive is the matter in which the points were scored. As expected, Cappie Pondexter led the team with 24 points, but what was not expected was the double-figure scoring by the other four Scarlet Knights, or the 13 assists by Matee Ajavon. If Rutgers can continue to play offense as effectively as it did against TCU, the Scarlet Knights will be hard to beat.

The game was the 1,000th coached by C Vivian Stringer and her 750th win. It's hard to second guess someone with that record, but it is puzzling why she did not use her bench more. Despite the lopsided score, all five starters played at least 34 minutes. One wonders if they might have appreciated a rest at some point.

But, when all was said and done, the top four seeds made it to the Sweet 16 out of the Cleveland regional. North Carolina will face Purdue and Tennessee with square off with Rutgers in the next round. Many Final Fours have not featured as much talent as will be on display in Cleveland, a fact pointed out by several coaches who landed in this quarter of the bracket.

In the end, though, only one will advance, and it will remain to be seen whether passing through the fire of the Cleveland region will burn a team out, or temper it for a run to the national title.

Scarlet Report Top Stories