Sweet Sixteen? Not such great shakes if you’re a fan of the Bowdoin College women’s basketball team. The Polar Bears have spoiled everyone rotten by advancing to the third round of the NCAA Division III tournament for seven consecutive seasons.

Elite Eight? It’s a nice whistle stop. Out of more than 400 women’s hoop teams in Division III, Bowdoin is the only outfit to advance that far in each of the last five years.

Bowdoin’s real destination is the Final Four, and it has been an almost elusive one. With the exception of 2004, when the previously undefeated Polar Bears lost in the national title game, the most successful small-college women’s program of this decade has been stopped shy of the semifinals each time.

The Polar Bears appear well equipped to finish this year’s journey, but taking the final steps tonight and Saturday in Scranton, Pa., won’t be a breeze.

Of the four regional brackets around the nation, No. 1 Bowdoin (28-1) is locked into the one in which it wouldn’t be shocking to see any of the four teams win. Today, the Polar Bears encounter the University of Rochester (22-5), a program seeking its third trip to the Final Four in the last five winters. Tip-off is 5 p.m.

If they outlast the Yellowjackets, the Polar Bears could face the third-ranked team in the country on its home court in Saturday’s sectional final. Scranton (27-2) squares off with No. 10 Mary Washington (28-2) at 7 p.m. tonight in the second semi at Long Center. The two winners collide at 7 p.m. Saturday, with a berth in next week’s championship rounds at Springfield (Mass.) College on the line.

An All-American forward and a senior backcourt have boosted Bowdoin to 13 straight wins after a 51-49 upset loss to Maine Maritime on its home court in mid-January.

Eileen Flaherty, a 5-foot-11 senior, has produced 18.6 points and 6.7 rebounds in a fabulous finishing kick to her career. Flaherty upped those averages to 25 points and 10 boards in early-round tournament wins over Mount Holyoke, 74-57, and Keene State, 77-52.

The scores don’t say so, but the Polar Bears were pushed harder in those games than they have been in previous tournament runs. Mount Holyoke trailed by only two points at the half. Keene State led by a digit early in the second half before Bowdoin embarked upon one of its typical, transition-fueled runs.

Battle-tested guards Julia Loonin and Katie Cummings dictate Bowdoin’s tempo at both ends of the floor. They combined for 10 points and 8 assists per game this season.

Bowdoin also showcases two standout sophomores.

Jill Anelauskas (11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds per game) raised her game with 14 points against Mount Holyoke and 18 versus Keene State.

Alexa Kaubris of Rumford continues to do what made her one of the all-time greats at Dirigo High School: Put numbers in every column of the stat sheet and help her team win. Kaubris (6.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) hit 23 3-pointers and 81 percent of her free-throw attempts this season while meshing perfectly with Bowdoin’s defensive philosophy.

Bowdoin enters the tourney with perhaps its deepest bench ever, as evidenced by eight different players hitting at least 10 3-pointers. First-year players Leah Rubega, Caitlin Hynes and Sabrina Cote and sophomore Maria Noucas have emerged as current contributors and future stars.

Danielle Muller (12.4) and Julie Marriott (9.9) are the top Rochester scoring threats. Alex Porter averages 8.2 points and 8.5 boards for the Yellowjackets, who started the season 14-0. Rochester later stumbled with three losses in its last five games prior to the tournament, when it defeated St. Lawrence and Cortland State.

Scranton hosts the regional on the strength of 12 straight wins. Senior guards Taryn Mellody and Allison Matt lead the Royals, who lost a sectional final to Bowdoin in 2004 before avenging the loss in 2005.

For a live web cast of tonight’s Bowdoin-Rochester game, go to www.wysl1040.com. Saturday’s regional final will be available at www.d3hoops.com.

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