Wait is worth it for UConn

Huskies top LSU, 86-71, return to Final Four for first time since '96

March 28, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- Shea Ralph only started smiling when the public address announcer called out, "One minute remaining."

That meant 60 seconds before two knee injuries and three premature tournament exits would be history for Ralph, whose Connecticut team downed Louisiana State last night, 86-71, in a surprisingly tough East Regional final in the women's NCAA tournament.

"That last minute, it finally hit us that we were going to win, we were going to the Final Four," said Ralph, who finished with 15 points, six rebounds and five of her team's 18 assists. "It felt so wonderful. We're just so excited."

In her fourth season at UConn, the redshirt junior and All-American from Fayetteville, N.C., was getting what she expected when she first arrived in Storrs for the fall of 1996, a goal that had proved elusive.

Knee injuries marred Ralph's first and second years, overlapping with losses to Tennessee, North Carolina State and Iowa State in the regionals over the past three years.

"We came from across the nation because of the things that Connecticut had done," Ralph said. "We thought that we would show up and go to the Final Four, because that's the way it was. But there's a lot of hard work that has to be done, and a lot of sacrifices that you have to make."

Svetlana Abrosimova had 25 points, six rebounds and five assists to earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the top-seeded Huskies (34-1), who will play Midwest Regional champion Penn State in the national semifinals Friday in Philadelphia, the hometown of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.

It's Connecticut's fourth Final Four in nine years, but first since 1996, when the Huskies lost to Tennessee in the semifinals.

Against a team that was smaller and slower, the knockout punch that Connecticut has been so adept at landing all season didn't come until late last night.

The third-seeded Tigers (25-7) wobbled but responded to Connecticut runs of 9-2, 7-2 and 9-2 before the Huskies ended with a 10-2 spurt.

"It was frustrating because we would cut the lead down, and they would do something like get a three-point play," LSU's Katrina Hibbert said. "The lead would go from six to 10 points until we had no runs left in us."

The decision was all but assured with 6: 09 remaining, when Ralph made a three pointer to give the Huskies a 75-58 lead, equaling their largest of the game.

But throughout the game, which switched from track meet in the first half to bar brawl in the second, the Tigers didn't seem to know they were out of it.

"This team has a lot of starch in its back," said LSU coach Sue Gunter, whose team didn't start with the obligatory fouls until 30 seconds were left. "I didn't feel like we were out of it until the last two or three minutes."

Tigers guard April Brown hit the last of her five three-pointers to cut Connecticut's lead to 76-67, only to see Swin Cash push the gap back to double digits with a lay-in with 2: 39 to go.

Auriemma admitted that until then, the memory of the 1998 loss to N.C. State loss had crept into his head, because as in that game, the opponent wouldn't relent.

"I didn't mention it to my players," Auriemma said, "but I mentioned it to myself a lot because we just couldn't put them away."

LSU couldn't stop Connecticut, which shot 57 percent for the game. But the Tigers countered with 74 percent shooting in the first half, when Brown scored 18 of her team-high 23 points.

Down 19-8 with 15: 52 to go after giving up an 11-2 run, LSU charged back, and Brown's three with 8: 31 narrowed the Huskies' lead to 29-25. Still despite the hot shooting and good half-court defense (16 of UConn's first-half points came in transition), the Tigers trailed 46-41 at halftime, mainly because of 11 turnovers.

"It was kind of frustrating to know that we were shooting pretty well and still could not find a way to get the lead," Brown said. "Connecticut is not No. 1 for nothing."

Women's NCAA tournament

Last night's results

East Regional final

Connecticut 86, LSU 71

Mideast Regional final

Tennessee 57, Texas Tech 44

Midwest Regional final

Penn State 86, La. Tech 65

West Regional final

Rutgers 59, Georgia 51

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