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NCAA BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES

There's No Match for Huskies

Women: Connecticut holds off Oklahoma, 82-70, in NCAA final to complete 39-0 season.

April 01, 2002|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — There are no more superlatives needed, no more oohs or ahs to render.

The talent and the record of the Connecticut Huskies can speak for itself.

On Sunday, what many have called the best women's college basketball team ever concluded its season with an 82-70 victory over Oklahoma to take the NCAA tournament championship before 29,619 at the Alamodome.

In winning its second title in the last three years, the Huskies equaled the 39-0 single-season record set by Tennessee in 1997-98. But Connecticut, which became the first women's team to have two undefeated championship seasons, stands out as women's basketball's top program. The Huskies' other undefeated championship season was 35-0 in 1994-95.

"The pressure to win has never been here," Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. "What has been here was the belief that if we did it right, we would win the national championship. We felt that way ever since the loss to Notre Dame in last year's Final Four."

When asked if he had the greatest team ever, Auriemma deferred. "You can say we were the best team this year. You can't say we're the best ever because it's hard to compare eras."

It was by no means a perfect sendoff for Connecticut. Oklahoma, playing in its first Final Four and NCAA title game, made the Huskies earn their title.

Despite being badly outrebounded, 44-25, and outshot, 52.6% to 38.7%, the Sooners made it a game by pestering the Huskies into 21 turnovers and keeping Connecticut from making a three-point shot, the first time that has happened in an NCAA title game.

With 1:31 to play Oklahoma (32-4) trailed, 73-67, when Connecticut guard Diana Taurasi (13 points) was fouled by Sooner guard Stacey Dales while spinning into the lane to make a short jumper. It was Dales' fifth foul, depriving Oklahoma of its leading scorer (18 points) and its heartbeat. Taurasi completed the three-point play, and Connecticut had all the space it needed to secure the victory.

"That was huge," said Connecticut's Sue Bird of Taurasi's play. "Di was backing in, and she's got such great body control that she can take the hit, foul out Dales--which is also huge--and make the bucket at the same time."

When the Sooners committed their 15th and last turnover with 18 seconds left, Bird dribbled out the clock, tossed the ball in the air and joined the crush of teammates to celebrate.

"I can't put it into words," said Swin Cash, who led all scorers with 20 and was named the tournament's most outstanding player. "When the buzzer went off ... I think of all the emotions and different things that run through your head.

"I don't think it has totally hit us yet. Give it a week or two, and I'm wondering what time are the workouts, and we don't have any anymore. That's when it will hit you."

Oklahoma was left to ponder a season in which it achieved plenty, including a school record for victories and becoming the first Big 12 team to reach the title game since the conference was formed in 1996-97.

"I would be happier if we won," Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale said. "But I'm so proud for the season we had and the journey we had. I knew this afternoon I would be sad either way.

"Our seniors are incredible kids, and they can forever feel part of something right."

The Sooners had stressed the importance of staying with Connecticut on the boards. But the Huskies' first 10 points came on second shots after offensive rebounds. Not only did the Huskies establish whose frontcourt was in control but, by getting a 12-4 lead, Connecticut forced Oklahoma to play uphill from the beginning.

"Their frontcourt is very physical and very talented," said Dales, speaking of Connecticut's power forward trio of Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones. "They are very underrated for what they do for their team."

A driving layup by Dales with 2:28 left in the first half cut Connecticut's lead to 34-30, and the Sooners were thinking they could be the first team this season to tie or lead Connecticut at halftime. But the Huskies swiped the momentum, scoring the last eight points to go ahead, 42-30.

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