UConn faces Penn State, expectations

At 34-1, mighty Huskies feel a crowning pressure

March 31, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- When Connecticut and Penn State get together tonight at 9, the meeting might be dubbed, "the Main Show vs. the Sideshow."

The 34-1 Huskies are the heir apparent to the national crown abdicated by defending champ Purdue. They're deep, they're talented, they're quick and they've been beating teams by an average of 31 points a game. Since November, the First Union Center has been waiting for them and their coach Geno Auriemma, a native of nearby Norristown.

Penn State, on the other hand, is in its first Final Four. It's the Big Ten champion with a 30-4 record. But the Nittany Lions -- who whipped Midwest Region favorite Louisiana Tech to get here -- weren't expected to be here, and are seen as a mere obstacle to a dream championship matchup between UConn and Tennessee on Sunday night.

"I hope that the teams aren't looking past us," Penn State point guard Helen Darling said. "We're a great team and we came here to win it, just like everyone else is here to do."

Still, after three straight years of what could be termed NCAA tournament disappointments, the expectation is that the Huskies will make up for lost time in their first Final Four trip since 1996.

That creates a pressure that Connecticut guard Svetlana Abrosimova said she's well aware of -- and grateful for.

"We work really hard during the year and we're finally here and it's a mix of feelings because it's a lot of pressure on us," the junior All-American said. "We've been the No. team during the year and people expect us to win, but it's an NCAA tournament and you can't put some team and say they're going to win because you never know what's going to happen."

For the second time in this tournament, the Huskies are playing a team they faced during the regular season. UConn ran away from the Nittany Lions early and late during an 87-74 win on Dec. 5 in Orlando.

The consolation for Penn State coach and Philadelphia native Rene Portland was the inside game, with post players Andrea Garner and Maren Walseth combining for 42 points.

"We definitely heard about it," UConn center Kelly Schumacher said.

"It's definitely a motivating factor," Huskies forward Tamika Williams said. "Coach has been telling us to go inside and take it to them because we have more post players than they do."

Said Portland: "That is an area with which we were very pleased that we were offensively able to do some things."

After that game, the Nittany Lions -- with seven seniors -- won 22 of their next 23 games, and enter tonight having won 26 of the past 28, surviving close calls against Auburn (75-69) and Iowa State (66-65) before beating Louisiana Tech by 21 in the Midwest final.

Darling, who won the Francis Pomeroy Naismith award as the game's best small player, averaged 14.2 points and 8.2 assists during the tournament while earning most outstanding player honors in the Midwest.

"I think we're a different team from earlier in the season," she said.

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