On championship road, UConn breaks in Md.

Women practice at Loyola before Sweet 16 game in Va.

March 23, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The Connecticut women's basketball team, on its way to Richmond, Va., is using Baltimore as a training ground for its East Region semifinal game against Oklahoma on Saturday.

Geno Auriemma, coach of the top-ranked Huskies (32-1), said he didn't want his team to spend its spring break at the Storrs, Conn., campus, and thought that Central Maryland might offer a friendlier climate.

But while weather services reported temperatures in the 60s in Storrs, overcast skies and 40-degree days have been the rule for Baltimore this week.

"This makes us feel excited about not being in Storrs," Auriemma said, aware of the trick Mother Nature had pulled. "We came down for the weather. We didn't realize we were coming down for the bad weather."

Loyola College is serving as the host for UConn's closed practices.

Huskies associate head coach Chris Dailey and Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan have a friendship going back to the late 1970s, when Dailey played at Rutgers for the women's team and Boylan worked for the Scarlet Knights as an assistant for the men's team.

"We love having them here, and they're great," Boylan said. "Plus, our kids [players] get to watch them, so it's a good thing."

There are worse teams to watch than the Huskies, who have steamrollered through their schedule on the way to another Sweet 16 appearance.

In 33 games, five opponent have gotten within 10 points of Connecticut at the final buzzer. Its lone blemish occurred with a last-second loss to Tennessee on Feb. 2. The salvation for Oklahoma may be that it has already played its seemingly invincible foe, losing 84-68 on Dec. 29 in Norman.

"They're so good, so big, so strong, that when you don't play them, you're in awe," Sooners standout Phylesha Whaley said. "That's how we kind of were."

Connecticut, which always appears unstoppable, is looking for its first Final Four appearance since 1996, despite a 96-9 record in the three intervening seasons.

Season-ending injuries to Shea Ralph in 1997 and Nykesha Sales in 1998 wrecked two of those previous quests for a national title. This season, led by all-Americans Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, UConn has won its first two tournament games -- against Hampton and Clemson -- by a combined total of 199-90.

"The last couple of years, we had some unfortunate things happen," Auriemma said. "It's been a long time since we've gone into a tournament knowing that we have our best team, so there's a certain confidence level that the players and coaches have."

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