Saturday, March 30, 2002

UConn cooks Tennessee to perfection

79-56 win leaves unbeaten Huskies a victory from title

The Associated Press

UConn All-American Sue Bird celebrates.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        SAN ANTONIO — By overwhelming its biggest rival, Connecticut showed why it's the perfect team. Now, there's just one game to go to complete a perfect season.

        With its usual combination of masterful offense and sticky defense — plus a flawless game from player of the year Sue Bird — Connecticut rolled past Tennessee and into the national championship game with a 79-56 victory Friday night.

        Oklahoma is all that stands between Connecticut and its second national title in three years and third overall.

        Connecticut grabbed the lead early, refused to give it up and dominated one of the few teams that was given any chance of beating the Huskies (38-0).

        “When you're going into a game of this magnitude, you really don't know what to expect,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “All day long, I was just preparing myself for anything that could happen.

        “Just the way we took the game to a very good team, a very good team, I'm really, really proud of my team right now. They're a pretty special group and we played a pretty special kind of game.”

        It's a group that certainly was too good for Tennessee, the most storied program in women's basketball with six national titles but in over its head in this one.

        “It was very shocking to see how we played,” Tennessee's Loree Moore said. “We didn't get going into our rhythm and they took advantage of that. They just steamrolled.”

        Earlier, Oklahoma beat Duke 86-71 in the other semifinal and will get its shot at Connecticut on Sunday night. The Sooners played gamely against the Huskies in the regular season, keeping it close much of the way before losing 86-72 on Dec. 22.

        Yet, there's even more at stake than a title for the Huskies, who have a chance to make their claim as the best women's team ever.

        They sure looked it against Tennessee. Connecticut-Tennessee is the marquee rivalry in women's basketball, but the Huskies made this one look like a scrimmage against the reserves.

        “We wore them down with our rebounding and physicalness inside,” UConn's Diana Taurasi said. “We just kept pushing the ball at them. It's tough to play like that for 40 minutes. You think you can keep it up for 15, but after a while it catches up with you.”

        The semifinal games drew a crowd of 29,619 to the Alamodome, the largest ever to see a women's college basketball game.

        They saw a vintage performance by Bird, who scored 18 points, made four 3-pointers, handed out five assists and played dogged defense on Tennessee's Kara Lawson. She set the tone with her crisp passing that resulted in one easy basket after another for her teammates.

        Asjha Jones came through with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Taurasi scored 17, made three 3-pointers and grabbed 10 rebounds — not bad for a guard.

        Swin Cash added 13 points and combined with Tamika Williams, who scored eight, to shut down the Lady Vols' interior players.

        Simply put: Tennessee had no chance. Only five times has Tennessee lost by a bigger margin.

        “We played really well as a team, a lot of individuals played really well,” Bird said. “When that happens, the score can get out of hand a lot of times.”

        Tennessee (29-5), in its 13th Final Four, was denied a chance to win a seventh title, and coach Pat Summitt was left in a tie with Jody Conradt of Texas for first place on the career victory list with 788. She'll have to wait until next season to pass her.

        The Lady Vols shot only 31 percent and didn't get the production they needed from their key players.

        “They had an aggressive style and we couldn't seem to get the looks inside that we needed,” Summitt said. “I think that is something that gave them a big edge and a lot of confidence. They just overpowered our post game.”

        Lawson scored only nine points on 4-for-13 shooting. Michelle Snow, the 6-foot-5 center who had a 3-inch height advantage on any Connecticut starter, was 2-for-7 and scored just six points.

        “They did a good job of keeping their hands in our faces, but we had our fair share of open looks,” Lawson said. “We just didn't knock them down.”

        The Lady Vols stayed close for, oh, 11 minutes. At one point, they forced Auriemma, who enjoys irritating Summitt and Tennessee fans, to call a timeout.

        The Lady Vols made only two of their first 11 shots and fell behind quickly, which happens to most Connecticut foes. As usual, the Huskies spread the scoring around, and a 7-0 run that reserve Jessica Moore finished with a basket inside gave them a 20-9 lead midway through the half.

        Tennessee then regrouped. McDaniel got free for a layup and Shyra Ely followed with two straight baskets to draw the Lady Vols to 20-15, forcing Auriemma to call time to make sure it did not get any closer.

        It didn't.

        Bird sank a 3-pointer, Williams made a free throw and, as if Connecticut needed any breaks, Jones picked up the ball after it was knocked loose from Williams and made a layup. Just like that, UConn was up 26-15.

        Taurasi, who had scored 32 in a victory over Tennessee in Knoxville in January, hit two straight 3-pointers and a pull-up jumper in a personal 8-1 run that stretched the lead to 36-20. It was 38-25 at the half.

        Last year, Notre Dame trailed Connecticut by 16 in the first half of their national semifinal game in St. Louis before rallying for a 90-75 victory. Auriemma has reminded his team of that game all season, and the message got through.

        “When we got up at halftime, we remembered what happened with Notre Dame,” Cash said. “We came out in the second half and we were focused. The first five minutes, we stayed just where we needed to be.”

        Bird, as usual, got things started with a jumper in the lane after a scramble for a loose ball, and Cash followed with two free throws to make it 42-25 — a clear message that Connecticut was still in control.

        If there was any doubt, it was erased with a seven-point flurry in just 54 seconds. First it was Bird with a 3-pointer. Then the Huskies swung the ball inside and out until Taurasi got open for a layup. Seconds later, Bird stole the ball, and that led to a 5-footer by Jones for a 55-33 lead.

        When Bird hit another shot, the lead was 60-36. There were still more than 12 minutes to play, but Tennessee was finished.

        Auriemma called another timeout with 4:20 left, this time with a smile. The Huskies were leading 74-47 and the Connecticut fans rose to applaud their stars as Bird walked the ball slowly up the court.

        When play resumed, Bird was resting on the bench. She deserved it.

        TENNESSEE (29-5) — G.Jackson 2-3 0-0 4, B.Jackson 2-11 3-4 8, Snow 2-7 2-2 6, Lawson 4-13 1-2 9, McDivitt 0-4 0-0 0, L.Moore 3-5 0-0 7, Ely 3-6 0-1 6, Butts 2-8 2-2 7, McDaniel 4-8 1-2 9, Munoz 0-2 0-2 0, Robinson 0-2 0-0 0, Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Pillow 0-0 0-0 0, Canon 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-70 9-15 56.

        CONNECTICUT (38-0) — Cash 4-10 5-7 13, Williams 2-4 4-5 8, Jones 8-17 2-2 18, Taurasi 7-16 0-1 17, Bird 7-15 0-0 18, J.Moore 1-1 1-4 3, Conlon 0-1 0-0 0, Battle 0-1 2-2 2, A.Valley 0-0 0-0 0, Marron 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-65 14-21 79.

        Halftime—Connecticut 38, Tennessee 25. 3-Point Goals—Tennessee 3-14 (L.Moore 1-1, Butts 1-4, B.Jackson 1-6, McDivitt 0-1, Lawson 0-2), Connecticut 7-17 (Bird 4-8, Taurasi 3-7, Cash 0-1, Conlon 0-1). Fouled out—None. Rebounds— Tennessee 48 (Snow 8), Connecticut 44 (Jones, Taurasi 10). Assists—Tennessee 9 (B.Jackson, McDivitt, L.Moore 2), Connecticut 19 (Bird, Cash, Taurasi 5). Total fouls—Tennessee 21, Connecticut 12. A—29,619.


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