For top-ranked UCLA, the third time will be either the charm or a bleak affirmation that bad things do indeed come in threes.

For the third straight year, the Bruins enter the final four of the NCAA Division I women's volleyball championship ranked No. 1. The last two times they were eliminated in the semifinals.

The University of Maryland hosts the first East Coast staging of the final four starting tonight. Semifinal play begins at 6:30, UCLA vs. Louisiana State at Cole Field House. Nebraska and the University of the Pacific play at 8:30. The title match is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

As much as UCLA Coach Andy Banachowski tried to erase the impact on his team of those consecutive semifinal losses -- employing sports psychologists, using new people in new positions -- it remains a major concern for the Bruins.

Said LSU Coach Scott Luster: "The pressure's on them too because of the last two years. If we can stay with them, we can put pressure on them."

But with setbacks comes experience and UCLA has "probably won more five-game matches this season than the last two years combined," said Banachowski. "This team is not as physical, not as big, as dominating so they play a different style. They've learned to depend on one another."

LSU senior outside hitter Monique Adams bristles at the suggestion that tonight's game is UCLA's to lose. But she's used to people counting out the Fighting Tigers. "People say, 'Oh, they're from the South, they don't know anything about volleyball,' or 'The South is slow,' " said Adams.

"We're not looking at {UCLA} like, 'Oh my god, they're number one.' . . . They're just another team that's rated higher, like Texas."

To get here, LSU came back from two games down to beat Texas, a team most thought had an easy route to the final four.

Nebraska is also hamstrung -- and prodded -- by history. In the finals twice, including 1989, the Cornhuskers twice finished second. And, no midwestern team yet has burst through the cocoon western teams have woven around the final four.

Pacific topped a top league and won the West regional. Four Big West teams were ranked in the top 10 this year and it has a legacy of winning it all: Hawaii in 1982 and 1983, Pacific in 1985 and 1986, Long Beach State last year.