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San Francisco Women Head To Sweet 16 With High Hopes

March 22, 1996

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ San Francisco’s surprising run in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament has had a pleasant side effect: Recognition.

``The crowd was loud and enthusiastic,″ said co-coach Bill Nepfel about his team’s return to campus this week after advancing in the tournament. ``It seemed really big.″

San Francisco now heads to the Mideast Regional semifinals in Rosemont, Ill., to face top-seeded Connecticut, the defending national champion, on Saturday.

But the challenge doesn’t seem to bother the Lady Dons who feel they’ve already proved their point.

``It’s a tremendous feeling when you walk through a campus that this team has put back on a hilltop. It’s been gone for a while,″ said Mary Hile-Nepfel, who coaches the team with her husband.

The Lady Dons (24-7) upset fifth-seeded Florida 68-61 in the tournament’s first round, then went on to a 64-60 victory over fourth-seeded Duke. With that perspective, Connecticut is just another step for San Francisco.

``I believe we can do it,″ guard Jamie Shadian said. ``We can go in there and beat UConn. That’s why it’s called `March Madness.′ Anything can happen.″

The Lady Dons have been building for this moment the past two seasons.

Expected to fare poorly in the West Coast Conference last year, San Francisco finished 24-5 and won the WCC tournament. The Lady Dons went on to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament, but lost to Arkansas 67-58 in the first round.

San Francisco won the WCC tournament again this season, becoming the only team to win consecutive titles. Valerie Gillon, a 6-foot-3 center from Belgium, was named the tournament’s most valuable player for the second straight year.

San Francisco’s success must be credited in part to its coaches, the NCAA’s only husband-and-wife coaching team. Together, they have led the Lady Dons to consecutive 20-win seasons.

Hile-Nepfel, who played for San Francisco from 1977-81, is the school’s career scoring leader _ among men and women _ with 2,324 points. Her jersey is retired along with those of San Francisco stars Bill Russell and Bill Cartwright.

Gillon, a senior, is another key for the Lady Dons. She averaged 16.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game this season, making her the team’s top scorer. She also is San Francisco’s career blocks leader with 139.

Against second-ranked Connecticut, San Francisco must use its most potent advantage: Defense. The Lady Dons held opponents to an average of 52.2 points in the 24 victories this season.

But to actually upset the Huskies (32-3), San Francisco also must shoot better, said Hile-Nepfel. The Lady Dons are averaging just 44 percent from the field.

``It will start with our team defense. We’re doing a great job on the defensive end,″ she said. ``Somebody will step up on offense.″

Regardless of the outcome Saturday, San Francisco will emerge from this season with a newfound sense of identity.

``People are going to start noticing us more. We’re going to start getting some recognition,″ guard Brittany Lindhe said after the Duke game. ``People are going to start saying, `Hey, here comes San Francisco.‴

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