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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Connecticut Leaves Opponents Smarting

January 10, 2002|MIKE TERRY

Now that Connecticut has settled the question of which is the best team in the country by throttling second-ranked Tennessee, the rest of the country have until the end of March to find a way to beat the Huskies.

That great Connecticut team everybody expected to steamroller women's college basketball after winning the 2000 NCAA title but was stopped by Notre Dame in the 2001 Final Four?

This year's edition may meet those expectations, as evidenced by Saturday's 86-72 victory.

Seniors Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams, and sophomore Diana Taurasi are more than a well-oiled machine. They are a seamless entity, satisfied in their roles, unselfish in their play, and united in their cause to win the national championship that eluded Connecticut last year.

"The other four play like seniors," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "Taurasi plays like a graduate student. They all play with great intelligence. When something breaks down, they know where they need to be and how they need to counter."

Coach Geno Auriemma knows he has something special. "When you have four seniors that are pretty smart in their own right, and Diana may be the smartest young player we've ever had, you can do certain things to take advantage of how the game's being played. And I'm fortunate to have the kind of kids who can do that."

The Huskies also showed the Volunteers a thing or two about effort and desire in big games. "They played physical and with a lot of heart," Tennessee center Michelle Snow said. "They wanted every rebound and loose ball, and they got them. That was something we hadn't seen as much from other teams."

In the end, it's still one game. Unless some other Big East team rises in league or conference tournament play, the Huskies won't face another ranked team until the NCAA tournament. Tennessee will have plenty more high-level Southeastern Conference competition to get through for another shot at Connecticut.

As good as they are, the Huskies don't want any comparisons to the 2000 team, or the 1995 NCAA champion that went 35-0. It's too early for that.

"It's important for us to just keep focusing on what we want to get done for this year," Jones said. "We have to get better every day, and the team will be reminded of that by the seniors. They understand how to win and how to lose."

So what did the showdown mean for women's basketball?

"It means we're all chasing Connecticut right now," Summitt said. "And it may be a marathon. But we hope to finish the race."

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One reason Connecticut has won three of the five meetings played at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena is an inspirational speech given by senior forward Paige Sauer on Jan. 8, 2000.

"When we came down here as sophomores," Cash said, "Paige really got in our faces because she wanted to win so bad. As a sophomore you don't really know what's involved. But the look on her face was like, 'We better win down here or don't get back on the plane.' And she was somebody who didn't play.

"So [Saturday] I did the same thing to the younger players coming out before the game."

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Just a thought: Bird, a guard, figures to be the first or second player chosen in the WNBA draft in April. And even though she scored only 12 points against Tennessee, she did not hurt herself in the scouts' eyes.

Snow is a different matter.

She is considered an inside player, yet she had no inside presence against Connecticut despite her 6-5 height. She has time to regain a prime spot in the draft, but the loss and her play had to damage her pro prospects.

*

USC dodged a devastating loss when Tiffany Elmore's injured ankle turned out to be a bad sprain instead of a fracture. Nonetheless, Elmore will sit out the UCLA game Sunday, and there is no target date for her return.

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Kansas State's 14-1 start (best in 32 years) and 11-game winning streak became more credible after the Wildcats beat fourth-ranked Iowa State and seventh-ranked Baylor last week. It was the first time Kansas State had ever beaten two top-10 teams in consecutive games.

The wins moved the Wildcats into the rankings at No. 14--the highest debut during a season since the poll was expanded from 20 to 25 teams in 1989.

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