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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL / MIKE TERRY

Taurasi's Team Has Invincible Look

February 04, 2003|MIKE TERRY

Defending national champion Connecticut is back on top of the polls, thanks to its 77-65 victory Saturday over previously top-ranked Duke. The Huskies are the only unbeaten team in Division I.

And it's hard to call it an upset, considering the Huskies took an NCAA women's Division I-record 58-game winning streak into that meeting with the Blue Devils.

Now Connecticut (20-0) needs a reason to stay interested for the rest of the regular season.

How about pursuing the men's Division I-record winning streak of 88, set by UCLA from 1971 to '73? Or the 81 consecutive victories by Division III Washington University of St. Louis from 1998 to 2000.

There's no way the Huskies can match either total this season. Even if they ran the table -- nine more regular-season wins, three in the Big East tournament, then six in the NCAA tournament -- they would top out at 77.

Perhaps a more pressing question in women's basketball is this: If teams can't beat the Huskies now, when will they?

Connecticut hasn't lost since falling to Notre Dame, 90-75, in the 2001 Final Four semifinal. It hasn't lost in the regular season since falling, 92-88, at Tennessee on Feb. 1, 2001.

Last season's Connecticut squad was 39-0 and won by an average of 35.4 points. Four starters from that team -- Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams -- were among the first six players taken in the 2002 WNBA draft.

That team was considered by many the all-time best women's college team.

This Connecticut squad has no seniors. Its tallest player is 6-foot-3 center Jessica Moore, a sophomore. Eight of its 11 players are freshmen or sophomores.

But in junior guard Diana Taurasi, the Huskies have something more than the team's lone returning starter. She may be the best player in women's college basketball. Taurasi, of Chino, not only leads the Huskies in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, she gives Connecticut its aura of invincibility.

Coach Geno Auriemma, in his 17th season, has one of the game's best tactical minds. And Auriemma's staff of assistants gets the Huskies prepared for every opponent, whether it's Duke or Talupa Tech.

Add in another strong incoming freshman class, and this could be a dynasty, with a capital D.

Only three Division I women's teams have posted undefeated seasons -- Texas, Tennessee and Connecticut twice. No team has recorded consecutive unbeaten seasons.

Connecticut is well on its way.

The Huskies had already defeated top-25 teams Oklahoma, Tennessee and Notre Dame before winning at Duke.

Their remaining Big East regular-season schedule has two potential traps -- a road game at Boston College on Thursday and a rematch with Notre Dame on Feb. 23.

After the Big East tournament -- the Huskies have won the last nine championships -- they may have to match up against Duke, Tennessee, and other current top-10 teams such as Stanford, Kansas State, and Louisiana State in the NCAA tournament. But no team on that list makes the Huskies sweat.

Auriemma quit acknowledging the streak after the Huskies beat Georgetown, 72-49, on Jan. 18 to pass the Division I record of 54 consecutive victories by Louisiana Tech.

"I don't think it's an issue anymore," Auriemma said after the Duke game. "It was an issue leading up to the record, because we were asked about it all the time. Now, it's like no one asks about it anymore. And rightly so. They shouldn't.

"We don't ever talk about it, honest to God. People think we're just saying that, but we never talk about it."

Auriemma also said that the women's game today was much more balanced than in the past, that there was no dominant team like the two-time NCAA-championship teams at USC and Stanford, or the Tennessee teams that won three consecutive titles.

"The biggest thing is, to win the NCAA tournament, I think you need all the pieces in place," Auriemma said. "You gotta be big, strong, tough defensively, have depth, have quickness -- you gotta have all those things. And if you don't, anybody can beat you on any given night in the tournament.

"I don't think there's any teams out there this year that you can look at, and you're scared to death to play them -- including us."

That might be stretching things.

At the moment, nobody wants to play Connecticut -- until there is a realistic chance to win.

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