Huskies complete title rerun

UConn women capture 2nd championship in row by beating Tennessee

Taurasi leads 73-68 victory

Junior scores 28 points, including 4 three-pointers

Ncaa Championship Game

April 09, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma has succinctly described the difference between his team and the rest of the field as the Huskies have Diana Taurasi and no one else does.

It seems simplistic, but it was so accurate in last night's national championship game, as the Huskies won their second straight title on the back of Taurasi with a 73-68 win over Tennessee.

"To beat Tennessee and to win the national championship with this group is truly one of the most remarkable things that's ever happened," Auriemma said.

"Maybe they're a lot better than I thought. Maybe they're tired of listening to me say, `We're too young, we're not talented, we're inexperienced, we're not deep enough.' But we're tough enough. We really are. And we've got D and they don't."

Taurasi, who didn't score for the first 8:45, made up for lost time with 28 points on a variety of shots, inside and out, in a magnificent performance.

The 6-foot junior from Chino, Calif., shot 8-for-15 from the field, including 4-for-9 from three-point range to power Connecticut (37-1) to its fourth title, all in the past eight years.

Making this title run even more significant is that Connecticut, which lost four starters from a team that ran the table last year, was allegedly in a rebuilding year, with Taurasi the only returning starter from the 2001-02 season.

"It was unbelievable just to be in the championship game," said Taurasi. "As a little kid growing up, you watch it on TV, but to be in it and play well and come out with a win just feels really good, especially doing it with people that have been through the system. It's been really hard and just feels really good."

Taurasi, who scored at least 20 points or more in each of Connecticut's six tournament wins, said she told Auriemma before the season that this team - the first in women's history to win without a single senior on the roster - would be OK once it had time to grow.

She actually told Auriemma that the Huskies would duplicate last season's unbeaten run, and absent a four-point loss to Villanova in the Big East tournament final, she would have been right.

Taurasi played the superstar role, to be certain, but she had help. Junior point guard Maria Conlon had 11 points, with three three-pointers, while freshman guard Ann Strother had 17 points, including three three-pointers, to alleviate some of the scoring load.

"We have great players, Diana and Jess [Jessica Moore, the starting center], who take the leadership on this team," said Strother. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't even be here playing in this game. The fact is, they took all the pressure off me, a freshman, and I came out and played."

Said Auriemma: "Ann has what's called basketball karma. She is always open. Always open. Of course, her man is always open, too."

There are those in the women's basketball game that believe that the Tennessee-Connecticut series, and all the attention it gathers, is bad for the sport, that it blocks out any other programs from gathering any interest, and keeps the sport from growing.

That may be true, but until the rest of the game can produce the kind of consistent drama that the Huskies and Lady Vols manufacture, then the focus is rightly placed.

At some point, however, Tennessee, which has lost three straight times to Connecticut in the Final Four, will have to win to make the rivalry an actual rivalry again. In fact, absent a three-point overtime win over Connecticut in the 1996 national semifinals, Tennessee has lost all four other meetings with the Huskies in the Final Four.

The Huskies have won three of the past four championships.

With the win, Auriemma tied Kentucky men's coach Adolph Rupp with four titles, and moved past Tennessee's Pat Summitt with the best winning percentage among active coaches in Division I.

The Lady Vols (33-5), who lost a one-point overtime decision in Hartford in January, launched a stirring comeback down the stretch. Trailing by 13, Tennessee went on a run to trim Connecticut's lead to three in the final minute, but couldn't get over the hump, despite amassing a 40-22 overall rebounding advantage and a whopping 20-5 tilt on the offensive glass.

"They are a hard team to defend," said Summitt. "In particular, I think this Connecticut team, because they are shooting the three so well, and their post people have really developed, that makes it very tough to switch a lot of defense on them. They are just a difficult team to defend in the half court."

Tennessee senior Kara Lawson had 18 points, including 15 in the second half to lead the Lady Vols' comeback, but Taurasi fired the ball defiantly into the crowd as the horn sounded and held out her jersey and the UConn emblazoned on it.

With everyone coming back for next year, Taurasi may have another occasion to puff out her jersey.

"I don't know what the limit is anymore," said Auriemma. "I watch my good friend Jim Boeheim win a national championship and he's been coaching 100 years and he finally got what every coach in America dreams of. Here I am sitting here with four of them and thinking, now I got to do more than that.

"It's like when you have already gotten more than you ever think you would ever get or more than some people will ever get. It's hard to think about more, getting more, wanting more, doing more. But come October, we will give it a shot and see what happens."

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