UConn-Tenn. means more than a title

As game is redefined, top programs are a study in 2 styles, similar success

Ncaa Women's Tournament

April 06, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- A reporter posed a hypothetical question to Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt yesterday to gauge the depth of feeling between her team and Connecticut heading into tonight's national championship game.

If Summitt were driving down a dark road and saw Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma's car stranded, would she drive on past? Stop and help? Or drive on past and then call for help?

"Well, I stop and ask if I can help him. Why wouldn't I? Reverse the role," she replied.

Asked the same question later, Auriemma sidestepped answering but quipped, "I would walk."

The two titans of women's basketball - with 10 of the 22 previous NCAA championships between them - meet again tonight at New Orleans Arena for their fourth go-round with a title on the line.

At center stage for the Huskies, as she has been in every Connecticut win over Tennessee the past three years, is guard Diana Taurasi.

The 6-foot-1 senior from Chino, Calif., is a three-time All-America and the Most Outstanding Player in last year's Final Four.

"The advantage, if we do have one, is we have been in this game, and they have, too, so it's going to be whoever goes out there and plays the hardest," said Taurasi. "Whichever team does it is going to win."

Besides having Taurasi, the Huskies figure to have an advantage inside, where forwards Barbara Turner and Jessica Moore have pounded the Lady Vols. Connecticut had a 17-11 advantage on the offensive glass in its 81-67 win in February.

"We've got to get it done or we're going to lose," said Tennessee center Ashley Robinson. "As post players, we have to represent the Tennessee way."

In tonight's championship game, Connecticut (30-4) will attempt to match the 1996-98 Lady Vol teams that won three straight, while Tennessee (31-3) goes for its seventh NCAA title.

At the same time, two very distinct approaches and ways of thinking will also be on display.

The two teams co-exist uneasily, representing the old and the new in a sport still trying to carve out its niche in the crowded American sports scene.

There's Tennessee, invitee to all 23 NCAA tournaments and supposed standard bearer for whatever tradition exists in this nascent sport. Just the use of the word "lady" in its nickname "Lady Vols" calls to mind some kinder, gentler time.

And then there's Connecticut, the latecomer to the dance whose four championships in eight years have been won loudly, with a cult-like fan base and a brash coach in Auriemma. He once dubbed Tennessee "the Evil Empire."

Auriemma noted yesterday that when the Huskies won their first championship in 1995, many observers believed they would fall back to the pack with schools like Old Dominion, Texas and Stanford, schools that had a level of success but never stayed with Tennessee.

"But a funny thing happened," said Auriemma. "We kept coming back. And that's when things got a little bit dicey, because we wouldn't go away.

He said it is "fitting" that in three out of four finals, Connecticut has beaten "the team that everybody associates with the best team, the best program over the last 20 some years." On the other hand, he added, "if they want to win, they got to beat us."

Summitt said she has "tremendous respect" for what Connecticut has done, especially in postseason play.

"I don't know if they respect us," she said. "I don't know what the resentment is, but we're not going to go away. We are here. And a lot of people didn't think we would be."

She pointed out that Tennessee has been "pretty consistent" for 27 years. "So, if people don't respect it, then maybe they resent it. So be it."

This rivalry thing would be even juicier if the Tennessee players, coaches and fans would play along. But they won't.

Indeed, the Lady Vols, partly because they play in the Southeastern Conference, the toughest league in women's basketball, consider Connecticut only a rival, not the rival.

"It's true; we have a lot of rivalries," said Tennessee guard Tasha Butts. "When you play in the SEC, you have no choice but to build some of those because you play against a home-state rival in Vanderbilt. Then you have Georgia and we went into two overtime games with them.

"UConn is one of our biggest rivals, but they are not the only one and they probably never will be the only one just because of the way the game is with so much parity now."

At the core of the supposed antipathy are Summitt and Auriemma, the two highest-paid and most visible figures in the game who regularly bump heads on the recruiting trail. Each team has scored big gets over the other, with Connecticut landing Taurasi. Tennessee got Chamique Holdsclaw, who led the Lady Vols to their three consecutive titles.

While Auriemma would not comment, Summitt responded to questions about their relationship, saying they once had a good one but now speak only before and after games.

"I don't know why it went south, but that's the way it is. You would think as many times as he's beaten us, he would feel sorry for me and talk to me."

Said Taurasi: "I think it's silly. They'll eventually have to put that all in the past, because they have built women's basketball together. It would be nice to see them get along, but that's not easy to do when you are competitive people fighting for the same thing.

"Coach Auriemma is an easygoing guy. You can take him as an arrogant guy who likes to run his mouth or as a guy who just likes to have fun. Coach Summitt is old school. She came here to do a job. In that way, they're different."

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