Constitution State soars to top of hoop

UConn's double leaves small state looking huge on college basketball map

April 07, 2004|By Paul Doyle and Lori Riley | Paul Doyle and Lori Riley,HARTFORD COURANT

Let the good times roll, Connecticut.

Both UConn basketball teams are national champions.

The men did their part in San Antonio Monday night and the women did theirs last night, defeating Tennessee, 70-61, before 18,211 at New Orleans Arena.

Diana Taurasi, who led the Huskies (31-4) with 17 points and was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, punted the ball into the crowd after the game. Tim and Kim Conlon hugged after their daughter, Maria, hit the last two free throws. Meghan Pattyson, who played on UConn's first Final Four team in 1991 in New Orleans, tackled Geno Auriemma's wife, Kathy, in the stands.

It is the first time that the same school has won both Division I championships in the same year. And the UConn women, despite an up-and-down season, joined Tennessee as the only teams to win three consecutive women's titles.

"When our basketball program became successful, our fans' expectation level was to win championships," Auriemma said to the delirious UConn fans in the crowd. "I don't think there is one single person in Connecticut who isn't unbelievably proud of our two basketball teams tonight."

New Orleans might be known as the Big Easy, but the Huskies' victory was anything but. Tennessee, which trailed by 17 with 6:39 left in the first half, cut UConn's lead to 50-48 with 9:51 remaining.

But the Huskies hit their shots down the stretch and kept their composure.

The history-making victory puts the team from the Constitution State on top of the college basketball world.

"It's mind-boggling," Auriemma said.

On Monday, UConn won its second men's title with an 82-73 victory over Georgia Tech in San Antonio. The Huskies, No. 1 in the preseason polls last fall, also won the title in 1999.

As the women were completing the sweep in New Orleans, the men were back in Storrs. There was a rally for the men at Gampel Pavilion early last night before the women's game was shown for students on four large video screens.

Men's coach Jim Calhoun said that a women's victory would be significant.

"From a school standpoint, without question, it would be a great thing because we could say this is the basketball capital of America," Calhoun said.

So just how did Storrs evolve into the center of the college basketball universe? It starts with the coaches, a couple of guys who came from Greater Boston and Philadelphia.

"It's Jim and Geno and the great assistants they have," said former athletic director Lew Perkins, who left UConn for Kansas last year. "They did all the work. They found the great players. We were just there to help and support them."

Calhoun and Auriemma were hired by former athletic director John Toner within a year of each other.

Calhoun was the coach at Northeastern University and looking for an opportunity in the Big East, perhaps the best conference in the country in the mid-1980s.

Auriemma was an assistant at Virginia before UConn hired him in 1985. By his fourth year, he had the Huskies in the NCAA tournament, and they advanced to the Final Four in 1991. His reputation as one of the best coaches and recruiters in the country was sealed with an NCAA title in 1995.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Hartford Courant staff writers Susan Campbell, Desmond Conner, Shawn Courchesne, Dan Haar and Grace Merritt contributed to this article.

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