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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Matchup Could Be a Preview of Final

January 22, 2003|MIKE TERRY

Duke and Connecticut are going to lose sometime this season.

But it may not happen for either until they play each other as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.

Judging by their games Monday -- Duke staving off North Carolina in overtime, Connecticut humbling Notre Dame -- the clash of the Blue Devils and Huskies at Duke on Feb. 1 could very well be an NCAA title game preview, those howls coming from Tennessee, Kansas State, Louisiana Tech and Stanford notwithstanding.

Duke, 17-0 and coming off a Final Four appearance, has been No. 1 all season. Connecticut, 17-0 and the defending national champion, has moved methodically up the rankings, and reached No. 2 after Louisiana Tech was knocked off by Arkansas over the weekend.

Connecticut's Diana Taurasi and Duke's Alana Beard, junior guards, are national player-of-the-year candidates.

To top it off, the Huskies could take an NCAA-record 58-game winning streak to the game, which sold out three weeks ago.

Of all the questions that will arise, the most interesting is, what happens if the superstars are taken out by the defenses?

Connecticut showed it can survive an off-night by Taurasi. She scored only four points in the 72-53 road win over Notre Dame.

But Duke apparently needed all of Beard's 26 points in outlasting the Tar Heels, 78-67.

No matter the outcome, it figures to be the type of showcase game women's basketball needs more frequently.

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Those waiting for the pressure of being No. 1 to get to Duke are still waiting.

Coach Gail Goestenkors said the Blue Devils were toughened in winning 31 games last season with eight players, as well as facing the annual challenge of navigating through the ACC.

"We have not felt any added pressure, because we have been in the top five or 10 for a while now," Goestenkors said. "Once you're in top 25, people are gunning for you. And in our conference we've been picked first, so we're a little more comfortable being everyone's big game."

The nicest surprise, Goestenkors said, is the student response to her team. Normally the men hog all the attention.

"We have almost tripled season ticket sales from last year, and our student body talks about the team," Goestenkors said. "The best thing of being No. 1 is, it got people in the community wondering about us."

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When Texas plays host to Texas Tech tonight, Longhorn Coach Jody Conradt could join Tennessee's Pat Summitt as the only women with 800 victories.

Conradt, in her 34th season of coaching, expressed amazement at how far the profession had taken her.

"Starting out, reaching this point would have been the farthest thing from my mind," she said. "I never thought the sport would emerge to the level it has. When I started, I literally coached for nothing. I loved the sport, had a passion for it. Most of us then were hired first as teachers. I coached basketball because I wanted to, not for some financial reward."

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Last-second shots: Pacific ended then-No. 18 Santa Barbara's 31-game winning streak against Big West Conference opponents last week with its 74-65 upset.... Stanford comes to Southern California this weekend having won 27 consecutive regular-season Pacific 10 Conference games. The Cardinal's last conference defeat was administered by USC on March 1, 2001.... With its upset of then-No. 2 Louisiana State, Arkansas ended a string of 40 consecutive losses to top-five teams.

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