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It's the No. 1 Agenda for Duke

Top-ranked Blue Devil women's team needs to prove itself in today's showdown with No. 2 Connecticut.

February 01, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — Women's college basketball doesn't have as many regular-season "Big Events" as the men's game.

But today's meeting between No. 1 Duke (20-0) and No. 2 Connecticut (19-0) more than qualifies.

Both teams were in last year's Final Four. Duke lost to Oklahoma in the semifinals; Connecticut beat the Sooners in the final for a 39-0 season and its third national championship.

Connecticut was supposed to rebuild after losing four starting seniors from what may have been the best women's college team ever. But this senior-less Connecticut squad, led by junior guard Diana Taurasi, has kept on winning. It brings an NCAA record 58-game winning streak to Duke.

The Blue Devils have been the top-ranked women's team all season. In junior guard Alana Beard, they have a star considered Taurasi's equal.

But this is the kind of game Duke needs to win to validate its No. 1 status. The Blue Devils will get their chance before a sold-out Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, the first sellout the Duke women have had.

Coach Gail Goestenkors talks about how Duke "has to take care of the ball" and try to "wear their defense down." She knows, however, her team has to make Connecticut believe it actually can lose.

"I know they've gone through spells, similar to us, where they've struggled offensively," Goestenkors said. "But it's the mark of a great team that players can have off nights, but because you have so much depth and talent the other players pick it up."

Of course, Connecticut is used to the frenzied atmosphere it will face at Duke. Many of its annual battles with Tennessee have served as the women's regular-season "Big Event." And why not? The two of them have won six of the last 10 NCAA women's championships.

Beard wants her team to take on some of Connecticut's swagger.

"When I saw them at the Final Four last year," Beard said, "you could see in their eyes they felt no one could beat them. That's what I liked about them, their confidence. It wasn't arrogance, just a lot of confidence they had in each other."

The duel between Beard and Taurasi, the leading candidates for player of the year, will draw as much attention as the game. They are their team's undisputed leaders; they are friends; they play their best with games on the line.

"I don't think either one of us is going to try to go out there and outdo anyone," Taurasi said. "I know I'm just going to go out there, play to our advantages, help everyone else on the team play well and pull out a victory."

And what would a Big Event be without Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma stirring up the opposition?

When asked what effect Duke's home crowd, also known as the Cameron Crazies, would have on the game, he replied: "I don't think they will be as effective as the Duke players will be."

With tongue further in cheek he went on to say: "I don't think there's any way we can win the game at Duke. I mean with as good as they are, as talented as they are, and then you throw in the Cameron Crazies, who are worth about 20 points, there is just no way we can win the game."

Whether it's pure genius, or pure Geno, he usually succeeds in drawing everyone's attention to himself and taking the pressure off his team. Goestenkors is trying to ease the pressure on Duke by pretending it's not there.

"I don't feel the pressure people are trying to place on us," she said. "I feel this is an opportunity ... to find out who we are in the season, and the things we need to work on."



On the Line

*--* Connecticut recently broke the NCAA record for longest women's basketball winning streak, but that streak will be at risk when the No. 2 Huskies play today at No. 1 Duke. The longest women's Division I winning streaks: Team Streak Years Connecticut 58 2001- Louisiana Tech 54 1980-82 Tennessee 45 1996-98 Texas 40 1985-87 Purdue 36 1998-2000 Note: The longest women's basketball winning streak in NCAA history is 81, by Division III Washington (Mo.), from 1998-2001


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