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NCAA WOMEN'S EAST REGIONAL : Given Scare, Connecticut Recovers to Win, 67-63

March 26, 1995|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STORRS, Conn. — The crowd hadn't seen anything like it all season.

The players, for a while anyway, didn't know what to make of it.

Neither did Coach Geno Auriemma, whose usual cockiness gave way to nervous pacing on the sideline.

In many ways, Saturday's game was a first for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team and its fans.

The Huskies, who had overwhelmed almost everyone on their schedule, found themselves seriously challenged by Virginia in the East Regional final.

But by the final whistle they had proved that they do have what it takes to come from behind and win a close game.

Trailing by seven points at halftime--the first time they had been behind at the half this season--Connecticut rallied to defeat the Cavaliers, 67-63, and advance to the Final Four in Minneapolis.

It was the closest game of the season for No. 1-ranked Connecticut (33-0), which had won its previous games by an average of 35 points.

"I don't think we needed a game like this, or wanted a game like this, but I guess we learned a lot," said Connecticut guard Jennifer Rizzotti, who was voted the East Region's most outstanding player.

In addition to making two key steals down the stretch, Rizzotti had 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Connecticut forward Jamelle Elliott was more to the point. "Did I get a greater feeling of satisfaction winning a close game?" she asked. "No, I about had a heart attack out there."

Elliott, a junior, scored nine of her 12 points in the second half and made one of two free throws to give the Huskies a 67-63 lead with 18 seconds to play.

Virginia, which lost the ball with 19 seconds left after being called for a five-secondviolation while trying to inbound it, had a chance to get back in the game after Elliott's freethrow.

But Connecticut forward Rebecca Lobo, who was frustrated all day offensively, blocked Wendy Palmer's three-point attempt out of bounds with 5.4 seconds to play.

Connecticut forward Nykesha Sales then stole the inbound pass to secure the victory and send Virginia home with a 27-5 record.

The sellout crowd of 8,241 at Connecticut's Gampel Pavilion turned into a sea of blue and white banners, dotted with the same "Beware of Dog" warning signs normally used to protect homes.

The Connecticut players remained on the court for several minutes, hugging and high-fiving, pointing to the pavilion roof to let the world know they still are No. 1.

Kara Wolters, the Huskies' 6-foot-7 center who scored 10 of her team-high 18 points in the second half, was in tears.

Elliott summed up the players' feelings.

"Going to Minneamapolis is the only thing on our minds now," she said, still trying to catch her breath and too excited to worry about pronunciation.

It didn't appear that way as the first half drew to a close.

"We definitely sensed a lack of composure on their part," Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan said of the Huskies, who allowed a 29-12 first-half lead turn into a 44-37 halftime deficit. "They were questioning themselves; they were definitely confused."

But Connecticut recovered.

"The thought of losing never entered our heads," said Lobo. "I wouldn't call it panic, but we did have to dig deep down and find something to get us back into the game."

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