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WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT

This Diana Is Still Regal

Despite statistical slide and coach's criticism, Taurasi is No. 1 to WNBA

March 20, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Diana Taurasi can be the WNBA's Larry Bird. Or its Magic Johnson. Depends on who's talking. She is seen as the star the Phoenix Mercury so desperately needs, one who would provide the WNBA with its own LeBron James, a drawing card around the country for a league looking for a Q-rating boost.

Taurasi has one more NCAA tournament to play for Connecticut. She would like to help the Huskies win a third consecutive national championship and then qualify for the women's U.S. Olympic basketball team, become the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick, then carry the Mercury on her back, as she did Connecticut a year ago, to an unlikely title. And then?

"I don't know," Taurasi said. "Just keep having fun."

Lately the fun has been harder to find for Taurasi. The consensus national college player of the year in 2003, Taurasi has already been named Big East player of the year for 2004. But Duke senior Alana Beard is the favorite to win most of the national player-of-the-year awards this season.

While Taurasi has led Connecticut to a 25-4 record, the Huskies are seeded only No. 2 in the East regional. The "only" seems ridiculous except Taurasi's team was once the favorite to win its third consecutive national title. Now, the Huskies, who open defense of their NCAA title Sunday against Penn, are no longer considered a lock to make the Final Four.

Taurasi, a 6-foot swing player from Chino, averages 15.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals a game, but over the last 14 games, as she has struggled with a sore ankle and balky back, Taurasi's scoring average has fallen to 11.6 points a game and the Huskies have suffered upset losses to Villanova and Boston College.

Which hasn't lessened her appeal to her future employer.

"What continues to jump out at you," said Phoenix General Manager Seth Sulka, "is Diana's basketball intelligence, her feel for the game, her understanding of the game. It's off the charts. What you sell with Diana is the basketball, just the basketball. I believe all basketball fans, men or women, will enjoy watching Diana play." When Taurasi left Southern California four years ago, spurning UCLA and breaking her mother's heart, it was so she could play basketball at a place where fans cared and at a place where she could frolic on the court in front of national audiences, win titles and be the best.

Lili Taurasi, Diana's mother, told Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, "I hate you." It was because Auriemma came into the Taurasi house and took Lili's daughter away.

"When she left," Lili said, "I was very upset. I am crying, saying my baby is 18 years old and leaving from my house. In my country, you leave when you get married."

Lili was born in Argentina. Mario Taurasi, Diana's father, was born in Italy, same as Auriemma, and then moved to Argentina.

Their youngest daughter was all American jock from the start, a little girl with big hands and a natural sense of where a basketball should be thrown and where a player should run. Running to Storrs, Conn., was just another instinctively good decision by Taurasi.

"Connecticut has been amazing," Taurasi said. "The fans travel everywhere, go everywhere They just cling on to the team."

Taurasi clings to nothing. She grabs things. The ball, the shot, the emotions of winning and losing. The last shot, the big shot. She bellows to the ceiling, she claps her hands. She has a wide smile and makes fans smile.

Renee Brown, WNBA vice president of player personnel, has seen Taurasi play dozens of times. "What I find is that I'm drawn to Diana," Brown said. "Not only to her ability but to the feeling she exudes that she loves the game. What I also like is that she's got a swagger to her walk and she can back it up. You look at Diana and she seems to be saying, 'I'm good, I know I'm good, and I'll show you how good I am.' "

It seemed that confidence, that swagger, may have gotten the best of Taurasi earlier this month during the Big East tournament. In a quarterfinal victory, Taurasi committed some quick fouls that put her on the bench. Taurasi and Auriemma exchanged heated words and after the game, Auriemma blasted his star player.

"D hasn't fouled anybody in four years," Auriemma told reporters. "She has not been wrong in four years, and I'm just sick of it. You don't sit there and argue with me. Nobody argues with me on the bench.... My problem is, how can you commit, as a senior this time of year, three of the dumbest fouls I've ever seen and put us in a situation where you're on the bench and they're in the one-and-one. The kid has a responsibility now. It's your senior year. It's March. Help us win. That's all. Don't do stupid stuff."

This was taken in some quarters as a sign that the rapport between volatile player and volatile coach had come to the end, especially when Connecticut was upset in its next game by Boston College.

In the Virginia Tech game, Taurasi had scored only four points before fouling out. In the loss to Villanova a week earlier, Taurasi had scored eight points.

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