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Five to Final Four

All those in favor of parity raise a glass to the five-year plan, which has, once again, produced some newbies for the Final Four. It gave us Stanford in 1990 and Rutgers in 2000, and now gives us Michigan State and Baylor. Michigan State coach Joanne McCallie and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson arrived at their programs five years ago with daunting renovations awaiting them.

McCallie, the former Maine coach, had been to the Final Four before, as an assistant at Auburn between 1988-92 and knew what it takes to get there. She built her team with local, under-the-radar talent such as Lindsay Bowen, Liz Shimek and Kristin Haynie -- three of the nine MSU players from Michigan -- and in the process building an unselfish team and a draw for local fans. "They've gotten better every year, and that's one thing I've like about our program," says McCallie. "That was something I learned at Auburn. We got better every year even with average players." McCallie has changed the culture, too, getting players to show commitment by staying over the summer and working out, just as the men's team does. In her first season, the Spartans finished 10-18; last year they had their first 20-win season, winning 22, including a NCAA first-round game. This year they have improved by 10 wins, the last being a 76-59 win over Stanford in the Elite Eight.

Like McCallie, Mulkey-Robertson had experience with Final Fours and perennial success. In fact, that's all she knew in 20 years as a player and assistant at Louisiana Tech. After her expected ascendancy to the head-coaching job at Tech soured because of a conflict over her contract, she bolted for Waco in 2000 -- though the only thing she could associate with the town was the Branch Davidian compound.

At Baylor, where the Lady Bears had gone 7-20 the year before, she was staring mediocrity in the face for the first time. "I looked at it two ways," she recalls. "I could either be scared to death, or I could think, I can't do any worse." With the help of juco transfer Sheila Lambert, Mulkey-Robertson won 21 games her first year and has never won fewer than 24 since. Like McCallie, Mulkey-Robertson has relied on in-state talent -- 11 of her 14 players are from Texas, including All-American senior post Steffanie Blackmon, and guards Chelsea Whitaker and Chameka Scott -- although her best player, Sophia Young, hails from St. Vincent in the West Indies.

After two early NCAA exits and a WNIT final, the Lady Bears just missed the Elite Eight last year when a controversial call gave Tennessee two free throws at the end of regulation to win their Sweet 16 game. This year, the Lady Bears won their first regular-season Big 12 title and conference tournament titel before making the Final Four with a dominating 72-63 win over top-seed North Carolina.

"You can coach a lifetime and have great teams that are expected to be in the Final Four and never make it," said Mulkey-Robertson after the game, her eyes glistening. "For our team to do it in five short years, I can't say enough about our coaches and players. These are tears of joy."

The five-year march from futility to the Final Four is common. Tara VanDerveer led the once execrable Stanford Cardinal to its first Final Four (and a national title, over Auburn, the team McCallie was coaching) in 1990, five years after she left Ohio State to take the job. Likewise, C. Vivian Stringer took the Scarlet Knights to their first Final Four in 2000, five years after she signed on at Rutgers.

UConn's Geno Auriemma, who took six years to get to his first Final Four, in 1991, was recently on a different five-year plan: once he got to the Final Four in Philly, in 2000, he stayed for five consecutive trips, a streak that ended when Stanford knocked his team out in the Sweet 16 on Sunday.

ELITE EIGHT MVP: Kristie Haynie of Michigan State. After recording a rare triple-double (13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) against Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16, the 5-foot-8 senior point guard shredded Stanford with 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and superb ball control (she had two of the team's five turnovers).

BEST PERFORMANCE IN A LOSING ROLE: Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter, who scored 25 points, almost half her team's total in a 59-49 loss to Tennessee. In a 64-58 win over Ohio State two days earlier she had 24 points, five rebounds and four assists.

BEST PERFORMANCE OFF THE BENCH: LSU's 6-foot-4 freshman Sylvia Fowles, recorded 13 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and one assist in the Lady Tigers' 59-49 win over Duke in the Regional Final.

WILLIS REED AWARD: Rutgers senior forward Chelsea Newton, who appeared to severely injure her knee nine minutes into the first half when she collided with teammate Matee Ajavon. She was carried off the court, but returned to action in the second half. She finished with two points, two steals and two rebounds.

X-FACTOR AWARD: Baylor junior guard Chameka Scott, who overcame a recent shooting slump -- 1-of-14 from the field and 0-of-9 from the arc in her previous two games -- to score 18 points, including 4-of-8 3-pointers, against North Carolina. She added nine rebounds, four steals and two blocks.

THE WILL-SOMEBODY-PLEASE-BREAK-50 AWARD: A tie! Tennessee, who finally breached the half-century mark late in a defensive battle with Rutgers, which the Lady Vols won, 59-49, and LSU, which won its defensive dustup with Duke, 59-49.

MY CURRENT PICKS: BAYLOR over LSU: 72-65. The Lady Bears are the only Final Four team that has looked solid every tournament game. The key will be Abiola Wabara's defense on Seimone Augustus.

TENNESSEE over MICHIGAN STATE: 74-70. I hesitate to doubt the Spartans again, but I think Tennessee's experience will win out. Plus, Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman will have the game of their lives playing in their home state, right? (Such a homecoming didn't do former Lady Vol Ace Clement much good in 2000; returning to her hometown stage in Philly, she sprained her ankle in shootaround before the final, which Connecticut won.)