Saturday, March 24, 2001

Connecticut 72, North Carolina State 58

AP Sports Writer

        PITTSBURGH — Diana Taurasi gave defending champion Connecticut a big lead with her 3-point shooting and the Huskies overcame a slapdash second half to beat North Carolina State 72-58 Saturday and reach the East Regional final.

        Taurasi, the nation's most heavily recruited high school player a year ago, had 24 points — 19 in a first half in which she was 5-for-5 from 3-point range. Sue Bird had 16 as UConn won its ninth in a row in NCAA tournament play.

        The Huskies (31-2) can reach their fifth women's Final Four since 1991 on Monday by beating Louisiana Tech, a 78-67 winner over Missouri earlier Saturday. The two longtime powers have four NCAA titles between them, yet have never met in an NCAA tournament game.

        Connecticut and N.C. State have met before — as the Huskies were frequently reminded all week. N.C. State upset heavily favored UConn 60-52 in the 1998 East Regional championship, a loss Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma counts as one of the worst of his career.

        This time, the Wolfpack (22-11) weren't about to sneak up on the Huskies. Even though Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph — All-American selections last season — are injured and out for the season, and a nervous Swin Cash, playing in front of a hometown crowd, had a subpar game, UConn opened a 12-0 lead in the first 3 1/2 minutes and led by as many as 20 points before halftime.

        Not even the presence of Steelers coach Bill Cowher and his wife, Kaye, a former N.C. State player, could rally the Wolfpack, who tried motivating themselves by wearing practice jerseys bearing Connecticut's trademark “C” design.

        It's one thing to imitate the Huskies, but another to beat them, even though UConn is missing its two biggest returning stars from last year's title team.

        The Huskies, however, have the deepest bench in the women's game, as evidenced by Taurasi. Not even a starter most of the season, she put in 3-pointer after 3-pointer over N.C. State's zone while making six of seven shots in the first half. She finished 8-of-13 from the field, including 6-of-8 on 3-pointers.

        Bird effectively ran the Huskies' offense, driving to the basket when she saw an opening or spinning it off to Taurasi for her pullup jumpers.

        The Huskies, who won their first two tournament games by an average of 58 points, seemed a little too at ease in the second half, scoring only 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the half. The Huskies also had 18 turnovers and were only 10-of-22 from the foul line.

        Part of that was attributable to Cash's nervousness. Cheered on by a sizable group from her nearby hometown of McKeesport, Pa., she seemed to be pressing at times and was only 1-for-8 at the line, although she had 11 points and 11 rebounds.

        Tynesha Lewis, a senior who was the only N.C. State player who played a significant role in the 1998 upset, played a strong game with 20 points, six rebounds and five assists. Carisse Moody added 19 points. But only four State players scored more than two points.

        The Wolfpack fell to 1-9 in NCAA regional play.

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