UConn rallies, slips past Texas into championship game, 71-69

Defending champ to face rival Tennessee for title

Ncaa Tournament

April 07, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - For more than a few moments last night, it looked like ESPN executives would not get the vaunted Tennessee-Connecticut NCAA championship game they wanted at the women's Final Four. And it looked like Connecticut, the network's darling, would spoil the party by not accepting the invitation.

The Texas Longhorns led the Huskies by nine in the second half before Connecticut, behind national Player of the Year Diana Taurasi, made a desperate charge down the stretch and held on for a 71-69 win.

The Huskies hit just three of their first 13 shots to start the second half, but used an 11-0 run to take the lead with 2:05 to go on a three-pointer from Taurasi, a 6-foot junior guard, off a steal from Maria Conlon on an inbounds pass.

"Defensively, we couldn't get consecutive stops and that really bothered us," said Taurasi, who finished with 26 points. "We just said: Settle down, get some stops, hit some shots. The turning point was when Maria stole the inbounds pass and hit me for a three. That changed the momentum, and we made plays. Everyone made plays."

Connecticut (36-1) will play for a second straight national title tomorrow night against rival Tennessee, which beat Duke 66-56, in the first semifinal.

The Huskies and the Lady Vols will meet in the championship game for the third time.

The Longhorns (29-6), who had won 17 straight games, seemed to have the momentum and a chance to reach the final for the first time since winning the title in 1986, but could only muster one basket in the final three minutes, a three-pointer from point guard Jamie Carey with 28 seconds left.

Still, the Huskies gave Texas a chance to win. After Connecticut's Willnett Crockett grabbed a rebound with 8.2 seconds to go and was fouled, she missed two free throws, giving Texas a last gasp.

Texas sophomore Heather Schreiber grabbed the rebound and threw long to senior guard Alisha Sare, into the game for the first time all night, but the team's best three-point threat.

Sare dribbled into position for a three-pointer that would have won the game, but the ball appeared to slip out of her hands on the attempt and into the hands of Taurasi, who scored 11 points in the final nine minutes.

"As Diana said, the three she hit sort of loosened her up," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who won his 500th career game. "As she got free a couple of times, we started setting a couple of better screens. She was out of it and it was just so physical that she couldn't move out there. It kind of frustrated her, and it rushed the rest of our team. But when she got into a comfort zone in the last seven or eight minutes, you could see that the rest of our guys were comfortable.

"I say it over and over again that we have Diana and they don't. I'm not going to be able to say it after Tuesday, but it's probably the biggest reason we're here."

Texas, which won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, played Connecticut physically, perhaps as much as any team has all season. But the Longhorns were unable to make the big play down the stretch.

"I hope your vocabulary is varied enough to come up with the words to describe how we feel," said Texas coach Jody Conradt. "This team plays as hard as it can and it comes down to plays at the end. What I tried to tell this team is that it wasn't just about the plays at the end of a close game, it's about plays all the way through. We had our opportunities."

The Huskies took a quick 7-4 lead, with Jessica Moore and Barbara Turner chipping in two points each, sandwiching a three-pointer from Taurasi. Connecticut extended the lead to 20-14 when Taurasi hit the second of her first-half three-pointers with 8:52 to play in the half.

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