Huskies vanquish Vols for title END OF THE ROAD NCAA TOURNAMENT

April 03, 1995|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- Throughout the season, the whispers about the true greatness of the Connecticut women's basketball team occasionally grew to murmurs and, at times, were even audible as those within the game wondered just how good the Huskies were.

When the horn sounded yesterday at the Target Center in the NCAA championship game, and the Huskies had vanquished their final and most substantial opponent, Tennessee, 70-64, to complete an undefeated season, all the talk stopped.

"I hope this puts what these kids did this season in perspective and that everybody gives these kids the credit and recognition they deserve. It couldn't happen to a nicer group," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.

The top-ranked Huskies (35-0), who became only the second team in the 14-year history of NCAA women's tournament play to finish a season unbeaten (Texas in 1986 was the other), capped a miraculous season where they answered every challenge by staring down the final and biggest obstacle -- the tradition-rich Lady Vols, the only team to win three national championships.

They did it in a most impressive manner -- fighting off serious foul trouble -- behind a most impressive player, senior Rebecca Lobo.

Lobo, a 6-foot-4 forward and the consensus national Player of the Year, had a game-high 17 points -- 11 in the final 11 minutes -- and eight rebounds, as the Huskies made up a nine-point second-half deficit to claim their first-ever national title.

"This is a picture-perfect way to end your career, to go undefeated and to win the national championship, and I did it with people I love," said Lobo, who hit four straight baskets in a four-minute span midway through the second half to pull the Huskies closer, then three of four foul shots in the last 30 seconds to seal the win.

She then took a delirium-filled run around the Target Center court when the horn sounded, before simply standing in front of the vocal Connecticut cheering section.

"It was the one time in my life where I really didn't have a thought in my head," said Lobo, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

The Connecticut and Tennessee teams, which met in Storrs in mid-January, where the Huskies won, 77-66, were heavy favorites to reach yesterday's title game, but many prognosticators gave the Lady Vols (34-3) the edge, based on their depth and their track record against good competition, forged over a season in which they had played 26 games against ranked opponents, losing only twice.

By contrast, the Huskies only played eight games against ranked opponents, and many observers believed that if the two teams met on a neutral floor, the Lady Vols' depth and experience would win out.

"This weekend, people were giving us a lack of respect, talking about our competition or when Tennessee came to play us, they were tired," said point guard Jennifer Rizzotti. "When we went into the tournament, people still weren't giving us respect, and also we were on our home court [in January] and that we could never beat Tennessee on a neutral court."

Early in the second half, with Rizzotti and Lobo in foul trouble, carrying three fouls each, and sophomore center Kara Wolters soon to join them with two quick fouls that gave her four overall, it looked as though the doubters were right.

But the Huskies, trailing 43-34 with just under 19 minutes left, slowly but surely clawed their way back into the game, using the time-tested method of outrebounding their opponents while playing better defense.

Connecticut, which had been outrebounded 22-18 in the first half, came back to grab 25 second-half rebounds, while Tennessee only got 15. As a result, the Lady Vols could not run and exploit their superior speed.

"They were great. They packed it in on the inside and we couldn't hit jumpers. Our offense staggered and we didn't run it effectively in the second half," said Tennessee forward Dana Johnson (Western).

Said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt: "We are a second-half team. At the first dead-ball situation in the second half, UConn outrebounded us 12-3. That's the game. When we can't get rebounds, we struggle in transition."

From there, the Tennessee half-court game went south, as it could only muster three field goals -- all from freshman center Tiffani Johnson -- in the final eight minutes.

As a result, the Tennessee senior class (led by forwards Nikki McCray and Johnson), which won 122 out of 133 games in its four years, leaves Knoxville with no championships.

"I hurt for this team very much," said Summitt. "We've been through a lot because of our senior class and their commitment to winning a national championship."

But Tennessee's pain is more than matched by the joy of the Huskies, who yesterday erased every last doubt about their status as the best team in women's basketball in 1995.

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