KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma likes to joke, when asked about Sue Bird, his point guard from New York, that she grew up on "the mean streets of Syosset," where the only thing that was stolen was a newspaper from someone's front porch.
The implication, of course, is that Bird's surroundings weren't exactly tough, yet the 5-foot-9 sophomore was plenty tough enough to engineer the top-ranked Huskies' 74-67 win over No. 2 Tennessee yesterday.
Bird was brilliant, hitting eight of 10 shots from the floor, as well as seven of eight free throws for a game-high 25 points, along with four steals.
"Most teams thrive on pressure, and that's what we did," Bird said. "Even though we didn't do so great on the X's and O's, we got what we needed."
"In games like this, so much pressure is on the big players to produce. It's usually somebody else that makes up for them and makes some plays, and that's what we were able to get from Sue," said Auriemma.
Bird, in the biggest game of her collegiate career, almost single-handedly quieted a raucous Tennessee throng of 20,789 -- the fifth-largest Thompson-Boling Arena crowd -- with two second-half three-pointers to rock the Lady Vols back on their heels, then sank four free throws in the final 1: 09 to seal the deal.
"Sue Bird was a difference maker. She controlled their tempo. She kept their composure. She was the one, and she ran the show," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
Said Connecticut guard Shea Ralph: "She really took over the game. Their pressure was getting to us, but Sue handled it calmly and she also hit big shots down the stretch."
Bird, who attended New York's Christ the King High School, which produced Chamique Holdsclaw, Tennessee's all-time leading scorer, missed last year's game after suffering a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
Bird was forced to watch last year's game, in which the Lady Vols manhandled Connecticut, 92-81, in Storrs, Conn., sitting behind the Huskies bench. This year, however, while Holdsclaw is training with the United States Olympic team in Miami, Bird was making her presence felt.
"It was really hard to sit there and know that there was nothing I could do last year," said Bird. "I value each game much more now. You have to come out and play each game as if it's your last, because it could be."
The game -- the first of two regular-season meetings between the two -- was billed as a potential national championship preview, and while crisp play was largely absent, the contest had a March feel.
The Huskies (12-0), who beat their sixth ranked opponent this season, came out as the aggressors, forcing the tempo by trapping and pressing the Lady Vols (11-2) all over the court on defense, then converting the turnovers into easy baskets.
In particular, Connecticut did a splendid job of harassing All-America forward Tamika Catchings and keeping her away from her comfort zones on offense.
"We felt if we could limit how many times Tamika got the ball, we thought we might have some success. We were fortunate in that sense," said Auriemma. "You're kind of rolling the dice when you play Tennessee. It came out for the best."
Catchings, a 6-1 junior and the preseason favorite for national Player of the Year, had eight points, eight off her season average, tying a season low. Catchings shot 3-for-9 from the field and had only one basket in the second half.
"Tamika has to come up and make big plays for us," said Summitt. "She's another player who will learn volumes from this. When you are one of the top players in the country, and she is, you learn and grow from this."
With Catchings drawing so much attention, Tennessee sophomore center Michelle Snow drew single coverage and took advantage, posting 21 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Snow, however, hurt her team, when, with 2: 57 to go, she picked up a technical foul after drawing the fifth foul on Connecticut's Paige Sauer. With the Lady Vols trailing 63-60, Snow, in celebrating Sauer's disqualification, slammed the ball to the court, then missed both her free throws. Bird made one of two foul shots, then junior Svetlana Abrosimova scored on an inbound pass with 2: 40 to go to essentially decide the contest.
"I didn't know they gave it [technical] out on offense," said Snow. "That possession cost us the game. We'll have to learn from that."
The loss, the second of the season for the Lady Vols, ended Tennessee's 11-game win streak. The last time Tennessee lost twice at home in a season was in the 1996-97 season, when the Lady Vols lost 10 games, on the way to the first of three straight titles.
The Lady Vols will get one more nationally televised crack at the Huskies next month in Storrs, and they vow that things will be different.
"This is not March. The championship is not today. We still have time to get better," said Tennessee guard Semeka Randall.
TENNESSEE -- Lawson 2-6 2-4 7, Catchings 3-9 2-4 8, Snow 8-20 5-9 21, Randall 5-14 9-10 20, Clement 0-2 0-1 0, Elzy 3-5 1-3 8, McDivitt 1-6 0-0 3, Jackson 0-3 0-2 0. Totals 22-65 19-33 67.
CONNECTICUT -- Abrosimova 5-10 3-4 14, Cash 3-7 0-0 6, Sauer 2-5 1-2 5, Bird 8-10 7-8 25, Ralph 4-10 4-4 13, Schumacher 1-5 0-0 2, Jones 3-5 0-5 6, Hansmeyer 0-0 0-0 0, Johnson 1-5 1-2 3, Williams 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-58 16-25 74.
Halftime--Connecticut 43-37. 3-point goals--Tennessee 4-15 (Elzy 1-1, Lawson 1-3, Randall 1-3, McDivitt 1-4, Clement 0-1, Catchings 0-3), Connecticut 4-7 (Bird 2-3, Ralph 1-1, Abrosimova 1-2, Johnson 0-1). Fouled out--Sauer. Rebounds--Tennessee 43 (Snow 12), Connecticut 39 (Ralph 8). Assists--Tennessee 12 (Catchings, McDivitt 3), Connecticut 13 (Ralph 5). Total fouls--Tennessee 22, Connecticut 27. A--20,789 (23,385).