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.

Taurasi, a 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.

"This year was just incredible, because we came in with no expectations. We give all the credit to the coaching staff," Taurasi said. "Before the game, Coach told us, you guys have to rewrite history. No superstars, just blue collar."

Taurasi, who scored at least 20 points or more in each of Connecticut's six tournament wins, 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, who 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 of 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.

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 Tennessee coach Pat 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.

"We are the Bad News Bears," said sophomore guard Ashley Battle. "We worked hard for it. Through all adversity, we pulled through. Everybody hates us. Nobody likes us and nobody thought we could win. So we went out there and proved everyone wrong."

It helps when you have Diana Taurasi playing Tatum O'Neal.

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