UConn rules alone, 71-52

36-1 Connecticut romps past Lady Vols, as Ralph rises for title

Endured 2 knee surgeries

Huskies jump out 21-6

Schumacher: 9 blocks

April 03, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- For four years now, Connecticut guard Shea Ralph seemed to be on the way to something very special, but something, usually a devastating injury, got in the way.

However, Ralph wiped out all those years of pain and heartbreak, personally willing the top-ranked Huskies to a national championship in a stunning 71-52 blowout of No. 2 Tennessee before 20,060 at the First Union Center.

The crowd and a national television audience saw Ralph, a 6-foot All-America perimeter player from Fayetteville, N.C., put on a bravura performance on both ends of the floor, with 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting, six steals and seven assists to go along with three rebounds, earning Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four.

Ralph, who bounced back from two serious knee injuries, was front and center as the Huskies (36-1) capped a year in which they led the national polls from wire to wire, to win their second national title in six years.

"We went out there as a team and decided we were going to focus inwardly on us, and knowing we could do what we knew how to do the best we could do it. I don't know if I've seen us play this well all year and we got the ultimate prize," said Ralph, the Big East Player of the Year.

The Huskies, whose lone loss this season came by one point against Tennessee in Storrs in February, seemed to pound out all their frustrations on the Lady Vols, their biggest rivals, whom they have met now 11 times, winning six.

"The fact that we did it against a team that's as good and has as much tradition as Tennessee makes this accomplishment all the more worthwhile, because I know how hard it is to beat them, how difficult to deny them when they are playing for a championship," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.

"This was a great team [last night]," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "There's no question about it, they were awesome."

Indeed. The Huskies not only forced Tennessee into the third-lowest game point total in the 19-year history of the NCAA women's championship game, but forced it into 26 turnovers, harassing the Lady Vols' backcourt and freshman point guard Kara Lawson, who only had one turnover, but also went 3-for-13 from the floor.

The Lady Vols (33-4) were without one of their starters, Kristen Clement, who hurt her ankle in a morning shoot-around when she landed on teammate Michelle Snow's foot, taking away one of their prime defenders.

"When you look at the stat sheet, we had 25 turnovers, and 20 of them came from juniors and seniors," said Summitt. "And as much as I knew we had young guards and obviously at the point, my greatest disappointment is that the people that had to play tonight didn't step up and handle the ball for us and unfortunately didn't defend well for us at the other end."

By contrast, the Huskies, who were never seriously threatened, were phenomenal on both ends, shooting 51 percent from the floor -- including 59 percent in the second half.

Defensively, Connecticut pressured the Tennessee guards out front and directed traffic inside to center Kelly Schumacher, who had a championship-game record nine blocks, while holding Snow in check.

"If you look at Schuey's contribution, I don't know if anybody had a bigger contribution," said Auriemma. "She set the tone for the way the game was going to be played. I knew that playing Michelle Snow was going to be difficult for her, but Schuey just played the game of her life, and in the biggest game of her life."

The weekend was a homecoming of sorts for Auriemma, the consensus National Coach of the Year, who grew up as an immigrant in the Philadelphia area.

"I know a lot of guys that were coaching when I was playing that used to tell me that I would never be any good as a player, and they were right," said Auriemma. "So I turned out to be the coach of a championship team."

At the heart of that team was Ralph, who was named the national Freshman of the Year by the Sporting News. Her star-crossed career included a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee late in the half of an NCAA tournament game in her freshman year.

She then missed the entire 1997-98 season when she re-tore her right knee's ACL in the preseason, but bounced back this season to lead the Huskies in scoring (14.3) and assists (4.0), and provided the emotional spark to a deep and talented club.

"I have worked so hard over these past two or three years, ever since my knee injury, and I haven't wanted anything as badly as I wanted it [last night]," said Ralph.

Said Summitt: "I told our basketball team that Shea Ralph is the hustle player on that team. She is a great leader and she has a lot of heart and she leads by example."

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