With their guards up, UConn women look tough in title defense

Frosh Taurasi, junior Bird lead Huskies in tourney, but watch for scorer Stiles


Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore saw it clearly.

Connecticut had just dismantled his team to win the East Regional final on Monday, scoring within six seconds of the opening tip and never relenting on the perimeter, under the basket, or in transition.

"It's pretty obvious to me," Barmore said, "that if they handle their business, they are going to be national champions."

Business is booming for the Huskies as UConn's never-ending supply of talent meets the demand of high expectations.

During their on-court celebration, the Huskies donned printed visors to commemorate their trip this weekend to the Final Four in St. Louis, where they will try to defend their national title.

Fittingly, even as they were cutting down the nets, the Huskies were looking ahead.

"We're all out there celebrating, but I'm like, `There's still more to go,' " UConn's freshman marvel, Diana Taurasi, said after the Huskies' 67-48 trouncing of Louisiana Tech. "I'm not satisfied. It's nice to get in the Final Four, the first one. But only good things can happen from there."

Sue Bird, the junior point guard, added, "We want to repeat, more than anything."

But first, the Huskies have a semifinal date against Notre Dame, one of only two teams that has beaten Connecticut this season. The other team, Tennessee, was upset in the Mideast Regional semifinal by Xavier, eliminating the possibility of a UConn-Tennessee rematch this year.

As if it matters.

This year's Final Four no longer needs such a marquee matchup. It has Jackie Stiles.

An endearing pony-tailed, knee-padded guard for No. 5-seeded Southwest Missouri State who hails from the one-stoplight town of Claflin, Kan., Stiles has been playing in anonymity for four years. Finally, after appearing on ESPN for the first time this season in the West Regional, Stiles has been able to show why, with 3,371 points, she is the leading career scorer in women's NCAA basketball.

On Monday, Stiles scored 32 points in Southwest Missouri State's 104-87 victory over Washington in the West Regional. On Saturday, she poured in 41 clutch points to upset top-seeded Duke in the regional semifinal. She also scored 32 points against Rutgers in the second round.

Stiles is known for spinning around defenders to sink three-pointers, slicing through the lane, and hitting soft fade-away jumpers. She has led the nation in scoring for the past two years and averaged 30.7 points this season.

"She's a once-in-a-generation type of player," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said last weekend in Pittsburgh. "She is the kind of kid that's relentless. Every time she touches the ball, you can't wait to see what she's going to do with it."

Auriemma once recruited her. She turned him down to stay close to home, and now Stiles will finish her career in St. Louis, a 3 1/2 -hour drive from Southwest Missouri's campus in Springfield.

Purdue, however, hopes to spoil Stiles' finale. The Boilermakers, seeded No. 3, already have turned back one sentimental upstart, Xavier, in the Mideast final. Purdue returns three players - All-American Katie Douglas, Camille Cooper and Kelly Komara - from its 1999 national championship team.

The Final Four will have a decidedly Midwestern flavor, with Stiles, Purdue, and the Ruth Riley-led Notre Dame team. The Irish and the Huskies jockeyed for the No. 1 ranking in the polls for most of the season, with UConn's last-second victory in the Big East Conference tournament giving it the top spot in the final poll.

Connecticut is vying to become the first team to repeat as national champion since Tennessee won three consecutive titles between 1996 and 1998.

The Huskies have dominated their tournament opponents, winning their last two games by an average of 16.5 points. And they have done so without two stars, Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph, who are out with season-ending injuries.

"You lose two All-Americans, you better replace them with somebody really, really good," Auriemma said.

Taurasi, a 6-foot guard, fits that billing, having moved into the starting lineup in February, one game after Abrosimova suffered torn ligaments in her foot.

"The game of women's basketball has not seen a player of her size who can shoot the ball the way she shoots it and loves to pass the way she passes," Auriemma said.

Taurasi scored 41 points in the East Regional and was named the most outstanding player.

Bird, the team's other starting guard, has shot 50 percent in UConn's four tournament victories.

When they were not sending sharp passes inside, Taurasi and Bird contributed to a stifling Husky defense that held Louisiana Tech to 28.6 percent shooting, the lowest ever in the regionals.

"With those two guys in the backcourt handling the ball, we're going to be OK," Auriemma said. "And when our big guys step up, we're good." Then he added, with a knowing smile, "We're pretty good."

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