UConn rips Tennessee

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 3, 2000

The Associated Press

Philadelphia – Connecticut took coach Geno Auriemma on the ride of his life.

Monday, April 03, 2000

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Philadelphia – Connecticut took coach Geno Auriemma on the ride of his life. Head lolling back and arms outstretched, Auriemma savored the moment as his players carried him down the court in celebration of Connecticut’s second national championship in women’s basketball.

The Huskies had just defeated Tennessee, winner of more national titles than any school not named UCLA, and they did it with such skill, efficiency and precision that a game expected to be a showcase event for the sport turned into a total mismatch.

Oh, yes, UConn’s 71-52 victory in Sunday night’s Philly final just happened to come in Auriemma’s backyard.

”It really is an indescribable feeling when you win something like this,” Auriemma said. ”The reason you can’t describe it is because you really can’t put into words what the looks on the kids’ faces are and what’s going through their minds and bodies, and that’s what this is all about.”

Connecticut won because of its ball-hawking defense, offensive balance and depth – the foundation of its play all season. The Huskies took control of the game early by building a 15-point lead and just never let go in completing a 36-1 season. The loss: a one-pointer to Tennessee on Feb. 2.

They got an assist beforehand from Auriemma’s 68-year-old mother, Marziello, who sprinkled holy water on the team. On this night, no extra help was necessary.

”I don’t know if I’ve seen us play this well all year, and we got the ultimate prize,” said guard Shea Ralph, voted the MVP of the Final Four.

Ralph and her teammates helped produce a sweet homecoming for Auriemma, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown after moving to this country from Italy when he was 7. He learned his basketball on the playgrounds, where a guy needed an attitude to survive, and in the tough Philadelphia Catholic League.

”A lot of guys that were coaching when I was playing said I’d never be any good as a player. They were right,” Auriemma said. ”So I turned out to be the coach of a championship team.

”It’s kind of funny to come back and they are all in the stands and they are all happy for me, because they finally saw me win something.”

The game was the first national final between the teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 since 1989. But only Connecticut, which also beat Tennessee for the 1995 national title, looked worthy of its ranking.

Tennessee (33-4), playing without starting guard and Philly native Kristen Clement, unraveled early in the face of Connecticut’s relentless trapping defense.

The Lady Vols committed 26 turnovers, and when they did get a shot, they usually missed badly or had it blocked.

Connecticut blocked 11 shots in all, including nine by Kelly Schumacher, a Final Four record. Tennessee made just 5-of-27 first-half shots and finished at 31.4 percent.

”They got all the turnovers, they got all the hustle plays and they converted them basically every time,” Tennessee’s Tamika Catchings said.

Clement, valuable because of her leadership and experience, sprained her right ankle when she stepped on teammate Michelle Snow’s foot at the morning shootaround.

Trainers treated the ankle all day, but when she entered the arena on crutches and then limped noticeably onto the court before the game, it was clear the Lady Vols would have to try to win their seventh NCAA title without her.

”We’ve relied greatly on Ace Clement,” coach Pat Summitt said. ”She’s been our best defender on the perimeter. She’s been a player that’s greatly influenced the intensity and attitude of our team. We missed her greatly.”

Connecticut had stars galore, starting with Ralph, who set the tone by harassing Tennessee players all over the court and constantly running down loose balls. She finished with 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting, and had seven assists, six steals and a block.

Svetlana Abrosimova scored 15 points, while Ashja Jones came off the bench to score 12 and grab eight rebounds. Swin Cash had nine points and Schumacher scored six to go with all her blocks.

Catchings led Tennessee with 16 points, but the Lady Vols’ two other top offensive threats had tough nights. Kara Lawson and Semeka Randall scored only six points each, Lawson going 3-for-13 and Randall 1-for-11.

”They did a good job of smothering me and making sure I didn’t have any open looks, so I have to credit their defense,” Lawson said, her voice cracking. ”But I think I lost my composure a couple of times … and that contributed to it.”

Tennessee fell behind 21-6 and managed only two field goals in the first 16 minutes. It was 32-19 at halftime and any hopes Tennessee had of regrouping ended when the Huskies scored the first eight points of the second half, Ralph getting two baskets and assisting on another.

Connecticut eventually stretched the lead to 27 with a series of layups against a Tennessee defense that turned uncharacteristically soft. The Huskies shot 59 percent in the second half.

”I’m not surprised,” said Auriemma, whose team did not have a game closer than 15 points in the NCAA tournament. ”This team was intent on proving that they are the best team in the country.”

Consider it done.