For one, the road to Cincinnati was a four-lane autobahn with unrestricted speed limits and nary a bump along the way.
For the other, it was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a triple-canopy jungle rigged with potholes and detours.
Nonetheless, whether they traveled in a stretch limo or a sub-compact, Heather Owen of Moscow, Idaho, and the Stanford Cardinal and Spokane’s Kari Hutchinson and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have arrived at the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four that begins tonight in sold out Riverfront Coliseum.
“Our goal,” said Hutchinson during a telephone interview from South Bend, Ind., “was to get to the Sweet 16. That’s what it was.”
A fine season for most, but one that might be considered sub-par for the Cardinal, a team shooting for its third national championship in this decade.
“Our goal,” said Owen, in the press room at the West Regional in Missoula, “is to win. That’s been our team goal. I’m confident in the people we have. We have a lot of depth.”
Stanford (34-1) will be tested first by Old Dominion (33-1), a team that, like Stanford, was seeded No. 1 at regionals. The Monarchs, playing on their home floor at Norfolk, Va., handed the Cardinal its only loss of the year, 83-66 on Dec. 17.
Notre Dame (31-6), the East Region’s sixth seed, had won just one game in three NCAA tournaments prior to this one. The Irish beat Memphis, Texas, Alabama and George Washington to work their way into the Final Four for a date with defending champion Tennessee (27-10).
Tennessee, the Midwest Region’s third seed, upset previously unbeaten Connecticut to reach the national semifinals for the 10th time in the tournament’s 16 years. The Vols have won four titles, both NCAA women’s records.
Earlier this year in Ruston, La., the Vols easily handled Notre Dame 72-59.
The ways Stanford and Notre Dame measure success bear few similarities. However, Owen, a 6-foot-4 forward and Hutchinson, a 6-1 guard out of St. George’s School, have had strikingly parallel junior years.
Both Inland Northwest stars have become role players. Both suffered fluke hand injuries on the same day. Both have seen their playing time shrink and their seats on the bench edge closer to the water coolers.
The Spokane area has a third link to the Final Four, Stanford junior Regan Freuen of Mead High School. Freuen, too, sits on reserve row, but she’s wearing street clothes.
Before the season began, the 6-0 forward/guard suffered a stress fracture in her right leg. The injury forced her to redshirt, but Freuen travels with the team and she expects to be back next season.
The Final Four will be a reunion for Hutchinson and her two friends from Stanford. Hutchinson and Freuen go back to their pre-teen years. All three played for the Spokane Stars, an AAU team that finished fourth nationally in 1994.
“I can’t wait to see Heather and Regan,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve played against Regan since Knights of Columbus (league).”
Hutchinson’s basketball career at Notre Dame has been a struggle. And at one point, finished. As a freshman, she averaged three points per game in 18.6 minutes of playing time, unspectacular figures for the point guard who helped the Dragons win the 1994 State B title.
During her sophomore year, Hutchinson’s minutes diminished and her already-frail relationship with coach Muffet McGraw deteriorated.
Six games into the season, she quit the team and announced she planned to transfer to the University of Montana, where she would redshirt the 1996-97 season.
However, she and McGraw later ironed out their differences. Hutchinson, convinced that staying at Notre Dame was the right thing to do, rejoined the team. She responded by averaging 2.9 points in 12.9 minutes per game this year.
“It was the right decision. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else,” she said.
Hutchinson broke her hand in practice on Feb. 11. The injury, one of several that hit the team during the season, sidelined her for four weeks. At one point, the Irish were reduced to seven scholarship players, and a student manager suited up during the East Regional, just in case McGraw needed an extra body.
“People say we’re seven deep. And I’m the eighth player,” Hutchinson said. “As long as we win, I’m OK with it.”
Stanford, a team also hampered by injuries, is at least eight deep.
Owen, averaging 5.4 points per game, has seen her minutes dwindle from about 19 per game to less than 10. She missed seven games after breaking her right pinkie in practice.
“She was playing really well before she got hurt,” coach Tara VanDerveer said. When Owen returned, she had to fight for time against Stanford’s already formidable array of post players. Then the kid known for her volleyball prowess, coaxed by VanDerveer, walked in. That was Kristin Folkl, a 6-2 all-everything athlete fresh from playing for Stanford’s NCAA championship volleyball team.
“I get my cast off and come back and here’s this volleyball player I have to battle now,” Owen said.
Folkl, a basketball letterwinner two years ago, has averaged 9.9 points and eight rebounds in nine games while shooting 66 percent. She was named to the West Regional all-tournament team, an unheard of honor for a sixth player.
Folkl herself softens the blow.
“Everybody keeps talking about our whole tag-team approach,” Folkl said. “With our big lineup, we keep pounding the other team.
“And Heather’s a huge, incredibly athletic post who can go in and run the floor, and she can shoot from anywhere. Great touch.”
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