UConn-Tenn. has final appeal

Traditional powers meet in semifinals for title-game berth

March 29, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - There aren't many events that could reduce a Final Four meeting between two No. 1 seeds like Duke and Oklahoma to a virtual afterthought, but then, in women's basketball parlance, there's little that compares to a meeting between Connecticut and Tennessee.

The Huskies and Lady Vols, who, for better or worse, draw the overwhelming share of media attention in this sport, meet tonight here at the Alamodome for a berth in Sunday's national championship game in the latest edition of women's basketball's most visible rivalry, their 15th meeting overall.

"It is pretty big," said Tennessee junior guard Kara Lawson of the rivalry. "There's nothing like the intensity. In a regular-season game with Connecticut, there's no other team that parallels the intensity that comes when you play them. Playing on a national stage like this at the Final Four, it's probably going to be off the charts."

Nothing less than a place in history is at stake in tonight's second semifinal, as Connecticut (37-0) is playing to take the penultimate step toward becoming only the fourth team in NCAA history to finish a season unbeaten, while Tennessee (29-4) is looking to add to its record six national titles.

The Huskies - in their third straight Final Four, winning the 2000 title - have been atop the national polls all season, outscoring opponents by nearly 37 points a game, resembling a buzz saw more than a basketball team.

"Obviously, our team is pretty experienced up to this point," said senior point guard Sue Bird, the consensus national Player of the Year. "This year, we've been up by 20 and gone up by 30, gone up by 40 [with] the reason being that we don't want to have any stones unturned. We just want to make sure when we have a team down, we want to keep putting them down."

The Huskies already pasted Tennessee, 86-72, in early January in Knoxville, only the second time in 22 games that an opponent has come within 18 points of them.

Still, the Lady Vols, who had an inconsistent season by Tennessee standards, falling to a No. 2 seed in the Midwest, believe that they have straightened things out since the Connecticut loss.

Coach Pat Summitt has shaken up her lineup, with 11 different starters in the past 18 games alone. Two Tennessee freshmen, center Shyra Ely and forward Brittany Jackson, have become starters and performed well.

"It's hard to keep track of all the combinations that they use anymore," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "They have a different starting lineup all the time, it seems. There's more of the younger players taking a bigger role."

Meanwhile, in the first semifinal, two of the sport's rising young coaches, Sherri Coale, 37, of Oklahoma (31-3) and Gail Goestenkors, 39, Duke's head coach, will guide their teams in what should be a battle of two high-octane offenses.

"They [Duke] are a finesse team, and they like to run and hit open shots, and in that regard, I hope we're similar," said Coale. "That's the way it ought to be played, so I think it's going to be a great game."

The Sooners, whose women's program was nearly eliminated by the school in 1990, have steadily risen up the national ranks behind Coale, in her sixth year in Norman after guiding a local high school to state titles.

Oklahoma, which won the Big 12 regular season and tournament championships and got the No. 1 seed in the West region, is making its first Final Four appearance in school history.

The Blue Devils (31-3), who ran the table in the Atlantic Coast Conference, going unbeaten in the regular season and winning the league tournament, are, next to Connecticut, playing some of the best basketball in the country, riding a 22-game winning streak.

Duke, making its second Final Four trip after losing to Purdue in the 1999 title game, began the season with 10 scholarship players, but two of them transferred during the season, leaving it with just eight.

The result, however, is the best record in school history and a solid shot to win the national title.

"These eight players have really come together, and I think it's been such a great year for me as a coach, and an easy year for me as a coach, because they all know their roles. And they all know that they're going to get to play, and there's a level of trust that they have with one another," said Goestenkors.

The game should feature two of the nation's best backcourts with Oklahoma All-America Stacey Dales and fellow senior LaNeishea Caufield facing Duke's Alana Beard, a sophomore All-America, and freshman Monique Currie.

"They have some terrific guards, and I think, we're both high-pressure oriented teams," said Dales, an Ontario native. "We like to steal some balls and hit some layups. It will be great for the fans and women's basketball. And those challenges are fun to play in."

Women's Final 4

At Alamodome, San Antonio Today's semifinals

Duke (31-3) vs. Oklahoma (31-3), 7 p.m.

Connecticut (37-0) vs. Tennessee (29-4), 9:30 p.m. approx. Sunday's championship Semifinal winners, 7:30 p.m.

TV: All games on ESPN

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