UConn women continue NCAA dominance

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 9, 2003

ATLANTA - When the nets had been cut and the trophy held aloft for all to admire, it was left to coach Geno Auriemma to explain Connecticut's fourth national championship.

Six words did the trick.

''We got Diana and they don't,'' Auriemma said.

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That would be Diana Taurasi, who plays with a flair that few can match and has a game that practically no one can stop.

Connecticut beat Tennessee 73-68 on Tuesday night to win its second straight national title, and third in four years. It was mostly Taurasi's doing, with help from three freshmen who had to play key roles after the Huskies graduated four seniors from last year's 39-0 club.

Taurasi scored 28 points and brought a calm to her younger teammates just by being on the floor with them. And why not? The 6-foot junior was always there when the Huskies (37-1) needed her, whether it was making a shot, a pass or a defensive play.

She hit four 3-pointers, scored on a picture-perfect backdoor cut, hit a floater in the lane and even threw in a shot left-handed.

''She is a great player,'' Tennessee's Brittany Jackson said. ''She is going to make plays whether you are in her face or if you are not in her face.''

So just how good is the Taurasi? Auriemma puts it this way: What other player took a team as young and inexperienced as this season's Huskies and carried it to the national title?

''You look at who everybody played with that won a national championship and look at where D is,'' he said. ''I would venture to say nobody has ever done it the way she has done it. It's never been done like this.

''Absolutely this puts her right there, if not above anyone who has ever played at this level.''

It was the third time UConn and Tennessee (33-5) met in the title game, and if any further evidence was needed that the Huskies have supplanted the Lady Vols as the nation's top program, this victory was it.

Connecticut beat Tennessee to win titles in 1995 and 2000 and routed the Lady Vols in the national semifinals last year before defeating Oklahoma for the championship.

The Huskies started to look vulnerable this season when they lost to Villanova in the Big East tournament final to break a 70-game winning streak. Six games later, UConn is right back where it finished last year.

Tennessee remains the leader with six titles, but the last was in 1998.

''They obviously won this game tonight and they deserved it,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. ''That doesn't mean that Tennessee is not a premier basketball program or a team of the past.''

Freshmen Ann Strother and Barbara Turner backed Taurasi with strong games - Strother scoring 17 points and Turner 10. Maria Conlon, a 5-9 junior who looked out of place among all the sleek athletes in the court, contributed 11 points, six assists and four rebounds while playing all but 45 seconds.

Strother came through after shooting only 32 percent in the first five games of the NCAA tournament. She went 6-for-11, including three 3-pointers, and made two free throws for the final points.

''She has good basketball karma,'' Auriemma said. ''She is always open. No matter who we play or no matter what the situation, no matter what defense they are in, Ann Strother is always open.

''So is her man when she's on defense. That karma goes both ways.''

Connecticut built a 13-point lead with just over six minutes to play before holding off a late Tennessee run. The Lady Vols scored eight straight points to get back in it, then drew to 70-66 when Brittany Jackson pump faked, leaned in and made a 3-pointer with 1:01 left.

''That's when I started to think, 'You know, that's the kind of goofy stuff that happens,''' Auriemma said. ''Especially when you live in New England, that's the ball between the first baseman's legs, that's the wild pitch.''

But Auriemma's team isn't the Boston Red Sox and the Huskies survived.

Strother made her free throws with 20 seconds left and teammate Ashley Robinson stole Tennessee's inbounds pass. Fittingly, Taurasi had the ball at the end and heaved it into the stands when the buzzer sounded, signaling the start of another UConn celebration.

''We worked hard for it,'' Battle said. ''Everybody hates us. Nobody likes us and nobody thought we could win. So we went out there and proved everybody wrong.''

The loss was especially bitter for Tennessee's Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson, seniors who ended their careers with three Final Four appearances but no championships.

Lawson led the Lady Vols with 18 points - 15 in the second half. Gwen Jackson scored 15 to go with nine rebounds, and Brittany Jackson finished with 13.

''Being at the Final Four three times in your career, it's tough not to come home with a championship,'' Lawson said. ''Both Gwen and I came to Tennessee to win one and that's hard. But you know, we came a long way this year.

''I don't think a lot of people really expected us to be in the national championship after losing some of the games we did.''

Connecticut has defeated Tennessee four straight times, a further insult to a program Auriemma had dubbed - jokingly, he insists - the ''Evil Empire.''

Taurasi and Co. made sure it did not strike back.