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College basketball

What's scary is, no one is leaving Connecticut

The national champion Huskies were the first to win without a senior on the team.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2003

ATLANTA -- When four starters graduated from Connecticut's 2002 national title squad, many thought the Huskies run at the top was over. Now that UConn has repeated as champion, one practically can hear the collective "uh-oh" uttered by opposing teams.

This time, nobody is leaving. That's right. The Huskies have no seniors.

"It feels good that we'll begin the year with the same nucleus," said junior forward Diana Taurasi, the national player of the year. "We can build on what we did this year. Hopefully we will continue to be get better."

The top-ranked Huskies (37-1) claimed their fourth title, all since 1995, beating fourth-ranked Tennessee 73-68 Tuesday night at a soldout Georgia Dome -- with a starting lineup of two juniors, one sophomore and two freshmen. Of the group, only Taurasi saw extensive action in the past year's championship game.

UConn is the first to win the title without a senior, and the Huskies did so by staying composed during crunch time. They won their Final Four games by a combined seven points, the smallest margin by a champion.

"Coach (Geno Auriemma) kept asking me, 'Are we going to be okay?"' Taurasi said. "I was like, 'We're going to be fine. We need a little time.' Six months and it worked out. They're babies. They grew up. I did, too."

Taurasi, the tournament's most outstanding player, scored 28 against the Vols and 26 in a two-point semifinal win over Texas. Her output Tuesday was second-most in the championship game behind Sheryl Swoopes' 47 for Texas Tech in 1993.

After missing her first two shots, Taurasi scored 11 of UConn's final 18 in the first half. She kept shooting in the second, making one clutch basket after another as Tennessee had no answer. Taurasi was 8-of-15 from the field, 4-of-9 from 3-point range and made all eight free-throw attempts.

"You've got to give Diana a lot of credit," Tennessee forward Gwen Jackson said. "She has been playing that way all year. She knocked them down the whole game."

Taurasi wasn't alone.

Freshman guard Ann Strother scored 17, one shy of her career high, on 6-of-11 shooting. Junior point guard Maria Conlon made three 3-pointers and had 11 points. And freshman forward Barbara Turner added 10 points.

Strother "has good basketball karma," Auriemma said. "She is always open -- always. It's just one of those things in life you can't explain."

After the game, Auriemma said the victory had added luster because it came against the game's most successful program. The Huskies have controlled Tennessee in recent years, winning six of the past seven meetings. They hold an 11-6 series lead and are 3-0 in the championship game.

Vols coach Pat Summitt leads women's coaches with six titles, but Auriemma is closing fast with four, three in the past four years. He tied Kentucky men's coach Adolph Rupp for third in championships won by a men's or women's coach. UCLA's John Wooden holds the record with 10.

Auriemma once dubbed Tennessee the "Evil Empire" of women's basketball, but clearly the Huskies have been the team of the century. Meantime, the Vols are without a title since 1998. For now, there is no question which is on top of the world.

"The day I took the job (in 1985) I never envisioned that it would be like this," Auriemma said.

A few minutes after Tuesday's game, several UConn fans chanted "Back to back, back to back." Then someone shouted above the rest, "Let's get a three-peat."

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