UConn, Tenn. stalk familiar territory

Tonight's women's finalists have combined to win six of past eight NCAA titles

April 08, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Here's how you know the Tennessee-Connecticut women's basketball rivalry is big: Almost all the participants spend a lot of time sidestepping the question of how big it is.

They represent the two most decorated programs in the sport and between them have won six of the past eight national championships heading into tonight's NCAA title game, but players and coaches on both sides say they are just two teams who tend to play each other a lot.

"It would be great, wouldn't it, if we would go out to the game [tonight] and everybody is having big seances and we are all holding hands and wishing each other luck, but that's not what you all want," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "You just want two people going at it, two programs that just hate each other. We want to kill each other. That's not the case, either."

Maybe, but spend a little time digging below the surface, as a Georgia Dome room full of reporters did yesterday, and it becomes clear these teams mean a little more to each other than perhaps they want to admit.

"We know what we have to do, so we'll just take what Coach gives us and run with it," said Tennessee guard Loree Moore. "It's like our biggest game and a big rivalry. We're ready to play."

The series didn't start until 1995, but the Huskies and Lady Vols seem to know each other quite well, especially at this time of the year, when the stakes get bigger.

And, as in 1995 and 2000, the stakes tonight are the NCAA championship. Connecticut (36-1) won those games, as well as last season's national semifinal in San Antonio and this year's regular-season game in Hartford in overtime.

Don't think the Lady Vols (33-4) haven't noticed.

"The last two times we played Connecticut in the Final Four in Philadelphia [in 2000] and in San Antonio [last year], it seemed like an 80-minute game," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "It's not anything that I want to think about as I prepare this basketball team, because this is a different team and not one that I would expect to go in and not compete and not handle different situations."

Another constant of the series is that it has featured some of the nation's best players, like Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings and Connecticut's Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird.

The Huskies have the game's best player this year, junior Diana Taurasi, who scored 26 in Connecticut's 71-69 win over Texas in Sunday's national semifinal. At 6 feet, Taurasi is big enough to post up smaller guards and can take forwards off the dribble, as well as stroke three-pointers out to near NBA range.

In addition, her reputation as a clutch player continues to grow. She scored 11 points in the last nine minutes Sunday, as well as hitting the game-winner in Connecticut's 63-62 win over the Lady Vols in January.

"Toward the end of games, I want the responsibility to be in control of the outcome," said Taurasi, who is wearing a back brace and will need offseason foot surgery. "The team and I put in so much hard work and effort into winning that when the game is over, I don't want to think, `What if?' When there is an open chance to take the shot, I am going to take it. If I miss, I miss. If it goes in, it's great. I am not the type of person who would want to think later that I should have taken that shot. I can't be afraid."

Meanwhile, the Lady Vols are playing perhaps their best basketball of the season. Forward Gwen Jackson, a 6-2 senior, has been brilliant in the tournament. Her 25 points and 15 rebounds in Sunday's 66-56 win over Duke propelled Tennessee into the national final for the 10th time in school history and may have landed her in the first round of next week's WNBA draft.

Like Jackson, Kara Lawson, a 5-8 guard and Tennessee's second-leading scorer, is going to her third Final Four but has not yet won a national title, a seeming birthright in Knoxville, given the six banners that hang there.

"I know without question the reason Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson chose to come to Tennessee is they wanted to have a national championship experience," Summitt said. "Now they are in this game, and they know it's up to them to step up and play and get that ring that they have been wanting."

The only thing standing in their way is the team they don't want to talk about.

Tonight's game

What: NCAA women's championship

Mathchup: Tennessee (33-4) vs. Connecticut (36-1)

Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Time: 8:30

TV: ESPN

How they got here

Tennessee: Defeated Alabama State, 95-43, in Mideast first round; Virginia, 81-51, in second round; Penn State, 86-58, in regional semifinal; Villanova, 73-49, in regional final; Duke, 66-56, in national semifinal.

Connecticut: Defeated Boston U., 91-44, in East first round; Texas Christian, 81-66, in second round; Boston College, 70-49, in regional semifinal; Purdue, 73-64, in regional final, Texas, 71-69, in national semifinal.

Coaches

Tennessee: Pat Summitt is 821-162, in 29 seasons, all at Tennessee.

Connecticut: Geno Auriemma is 500-99, in 18 seasons, all at Connecticut.

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