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Sooners want respect; Huskies want history

Oklahoma refuses to surrender without taking its best shot at highly favored Connecticut.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- There were days soon after she arrived in Norman, Okla., that Stacey Dales was so depressed she could barely leave her dorm room.

She was thousands of miles from her native Ontario, Canada. To make matters worse, she was sidelined with an ACL injury to her left knee that ended her freshman season.

One thing kept her going, a vision as clear then as today: Oklahoma playing for a national championship.

"My first year I was in a state of depression," Dales said Saturday. "But every day I would go to the gym and I could just see it, just feel it. I could see how good we were going to be. It was a constant battle between depression and absolute joy. It was tough, but I knew we were going to be good. I could feel it."

She was right.

Four years after that dreary season, Dales and the Sooners (32-3) play Connecticut (38-0) at 8:30 tonight on ESPN for the NCAA Women's Basketball National Championship.

Playing for a title and earning national respect are two different things, it seems.

Take, for instance, the reporter who wanted Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale's reaction to the "general opinion" the women's national championship game really was the Tennessee-UConn semifinal Friday night.

"They're wrong," Coale shot back. "The championship game is (tonight) and we're playing in it. I've said since Selection Sunday, I don't think anybody has shipped the trophy to Storrs (Conn.) yet. If it's all right with the rest of you guys, we're going to go ahead and play and see what happens."

Welcome to the Sooners' world.

Twelve years ago the school briefly dropped the program because of lack of interest. Six years ago they hired Coale, a high school coach, to take over the floundering program.

Now they play for their first national championship with more than 29,000 in attendance.

The only problem is they play Connecticut.

The undefeated Huskies are the overwhelming favorite to win. Oklahoma gets no love. Sure, everyone is intrigued by its rise to glory, the Cinderella story. But few outside Norman expect the Sooners to pull off the upset.

"It's anyone's game. Whoever plays best for 40 minutes," OU forward Jamie Talbert said. "Connecticut is not superhuman. They are a great team, but they are not unbeatable. They haven't been beaten, so you have to give them respect. ... It takes pressure off of us because no one expects us to win."

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma knows what the Sooners are going through. In 1995 Connecticut was 34-0 heading into the national championship game but was considered the underdog against Tennessee.

"Nobody thought we were going to win that game," Auriemma said. "Right now I think we're on the other end of that story. Oklahoma is where we were, and we are where Tennessee was."

For the record, UConn beat Tennessee in '95. And Connecticut insists it isn't overlooking the Sooners.

"We are focused right now, we know it is not over yet," UConn sophomore guard Diana Taurasi said. "There is still one more game to be played and it is going to be the toughest game yet. Whichever teams wants it the most, whichever team comes ready to go from tipoff, is the team that is going to come out on top."

It was a December loss to the Huskies in Storrs that has the Sooners feeling confident. Oklahoma lost by 14, but Dales spent much of the game in foul trouble, and with five minutes remaining the Sooners trailed by four.

"We think we can win," senior guard LaNeisha Caufield said. "But you look around and it's UConn, UConn, UConn. We have nothing to lose. We just have to go out there, play hard and leave it on the court. When you play a team that's not expected to win, then that team is capable of doing anything. We are not intimidated."

That December game also has the Huskies on their toes.

"It was probably one of the toughest games of the season," Taurasi said. "They are a really good team, they are balanced, they push the ball, they play really good defense. You can't focus on one of them, you have to go out and play them all."

While Oklahoma plays for respect, Connecticut plays for a place in history. A win would make the Huskies the second women's team to go 39-0 and win a national championship. Tennessee went 39-0 in 1998.

That isn't lost on the Huskies' seniors.

"When all is said and done, all four of us seniors want to win," Connecticut forward Asjha Jones said. "My freshman year we didn't get the job done. Now we're ready. Your dream is to win a championship. That's the ultimate. We have that chance right now."

And if that happens, will the Huskies deserve to be considered the best ever?

"The game changes from year to year so that it's hard to judge," forward Tamika Williams said. "I don't know about the greatest to ever play, but maybe one of the best."

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