Sunday, March 31, 2002

Women: Huskies gun for perfect season, greatest-team tag

The Associated Press

        SAN ANTONIO — The question has followed Connecticut throughout the NCAA Tournament and through much of the season as well.

        Is this the best women's basketball team ever assembled?

        With a 38-0 record, four All-Americans and an average victory margin of 36 points, the Huskies certainly can make a strong argument for that distinction. Tonight, they get one last chance to state their case.

        Connecticut meets Oklahoma (32-3), a remarkable story in its own right, in the national championship game at the Alamodome. And this much is sure: If Connecticut wins, it matches Tennessee's 1997-98 team for the best record in women's basketball, 39-0.

        It also would give the Huskies and coach Geno Auriemma their third title, adding to his program's growing legacy. As for how this team will be remembered, UConn's Tamika Williams said that's not important now.

        “You know when that's going to matter?” Williams said. “When my kids are like 7, 8 years old and they're starting to play sports and I can tell them I was part of the best thing ever in women's basketball. That's when it will be history for me.

        “As for right now, I'm just trying to win this game and finish off the great career we four seniors have had.”

        Connecticut has reached this point because it has five players who fit perfectly. They pass with precision. They don't miss when open. They don't care who scores, just as long as someone does. And their defense?

        Just ask Tennessee about that. The Huskies hounded Tennessee from start to finish while overwhelming the Lady Vols 79-56 in the semifinals Friday night.

        “They're relentless,” Oklahoma's Caton Hill said. “If you make a turnover, they're going to make you pay. They're so smart, they make big runs off that. That's what makes them the team that they are.”

        It starts with point guard Sue Bird, a first-team All-American and the national player of the year. Guard Diana Taurasi — there's no shot too tough or too far from the basket for her — and forward Swin Cash were second-team picks. Forward Asjha Jones made the third team.

        The fifth starter, Williams, received honorable mention. No team ever had more All-Americans. Yet all know their roles.

        “Maybe when it's all said and done, this thing about great teams and not-so-great teams, win or lose tomorrow night, I think there has to be a certain appreciation for the way these kids have handled playing the game,” Auriemma said.

        “There's a certain style these kids have. There's a certain flair that they play the game with. That's the kind of stuff I like. I like the way they play.”

        Now comes Oklahoma, a team with similar traits, the last team with a chance to ruin Connecticut's rush to perfection.

        The Sooners beat Duke 86-71 on Friday night to earn their first trip to the title game. It comes six years after the school hired Sherri Coale out of Norman (Okla.) High School to inject some life into the program, which almost was eliminated in 1990.

        It was a rough ride early. The Sooners went 5-22 in Coale's first season, but they've improved every year since. Now she'll try to steal a championship from a coach who helped her get the Oklahoma job and has become one of her best friends in the profession.

        “We laugh a lot and poke fun at each other, and I think we both respect one another,” Coale said. “To be competing in this game and in this situation against him is surreal.”

        And believe it, these Sooners are confident they can compete. They trailed Connecticut by only five in a Dec.22 game at Hartford before the Huskies pulled away in the final nine minutes for an 86-72 victory.

        “They carry a great deal of mystique,” said Stacey Dales, Oklahoma's All-America guard. “That's one of the driving forces behind how successful they are. Playing them there and playing well, that was in their kingdom. That was their domain.

        “We're on a neutral site now. We feel pretty good about the opportunity that's presenting itself.”

        The key matchup, the one that has everyone buzzing, is at guard: Bird and Taurasi vs. Dales, LaNeishea Caufield and Rosalind Ross. All five can shoot; all can pass; all can take the ball to the basket.

        With Oklahoma having three on the perimeter, one of Connecticut's inside players — Cash, Jones or Williams — will have to come outside.

        “I've got to think that's to our advantage,” Coale said. “You flip that around and one of my guards has to try to guard them in the post. So it might be who does whatever they're most uncomfortable with best that wins this battle.”

        It's a battle that could decide the game — and decide just where history puts Connecticut.


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