Archive for Monday, April 1, 2002

UConn caps perfect year with 82-70 win over OU

April 1, 2002


— Connecticut refused to let an imperfect game stand in the way of a perfect season.

All that's left now is deciding whether it's the best women's team ever.

Connecticut beat Oklahoma, 82-70, Sunday night to conclude its second unbeaten season with a third national championship  and prove that yes, it could win a close game, too.

But the best ever? Not even the Huskies themselves were ready to go that far, even though their average victory margin this season, 35.4 points, was an NCAA record.

"We'll be up there. We'll be up there," Tamika Williams said. "But we'll never be the greatest."

Connecticut won because it offset an uncharacteristic rash of turnovers and poor outside shooting with strong inside play.

The frontcourt trio of Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Williams led the Huskies to an overwhelming rebounding advantage  and on this night, they sure needed it.

Oklahoma (32-4) simply would not go away. After one lopsided victory after another, the Huskies had to work to get their last one.

"This was without question the most difficult game we have had to play," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Oklahoma was unbelievably good. They were unbelievably good."

Trailing by 16 early in the second half, Oklahoma came within six with a little more than two minutes left. Things like that did not happen to the Huskies this season, but they responded as if it were an everyday occurrence.

Diana Taurasi converted a key three-point play and player of the year Sue Bird wrapped it up with six straight free throws. With 18 seconds left, Bird was able to dribble out the clock and the Huskies had their title.

"My team did a great job tonight," Bird said. "That's why we're the greatest  well, not the greatest, but one of the greatest."

Connecticut committed 21 turnovers, two short of its season high, and was 0-for-9 on three-point shots. All that did was force the Huskies to find another way to win it, and they did by overpowering the Sooners inside as 29,619 watched in the Alamodome  a championship game record.

Cash was the strongest presence with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Jones had 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Williams finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.

Cash was selected the outstanding player in the Final Four.

"They were doing a good job trying to block us out, but we were spinning out," Cash said. "Sometimes you can get those easy rebounds, but we were working hard on the offensive end and focused on that."

Oh, and don't forget the guards. Bird had 14 points and four assists and made all eight of her free throws. Taurasi added 13 points and got the honor of heaving the ball into the stands when it was over.

"I could be a whole lot happier now, but I couldn't be more proud of this basketball team and this season that we've had the journey we've been on," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "I'm sad not because we lost, but because it's over."

Coale and Auriemma are good friends and delighted reporters by trading barbs during Saturday's pregame news conference. Auriemma has been a mentor of sorts to Coale and helped her get the Oklahoma job in 1996.

She returned the favor by almost ruining his season.

"I'm happy for Geno," Coale said. "It's an unbelievable, amazing accomplishment to go undefeated, not just once but twice in your career.

"But I'll tell you what: I think we scared them."

Oklahoma showed its resiliency by making it a game after a poor start. All-American Stacey Dales led the Sooners with 18 points. Rosalind Ross scored 17 and made four three-pointers. LaNeishea Caufield added 14.

But the Sooners could not overcome their 39 percent shooting and Connecticut's 44-25 rebounding advantage.

"Everybody has been saying, 'This is a great team, but what are they going to do when they got into a close game?' " Auriemma said. "Well, we got in a close game and these kids came through unbelievably."

Connecticut asserted itself inside early, getting eight of its first nine baskets on putbacks or layups. The Huskies shot 60 percent in the first half and ended the period with an 8-0 run to lead 42-30.

The Huskies kept it up early in the second half and the lead grew to 54-38 when Taurasi scored less than six minutes into the half. A blowout looked imminent, but Oklahoma did not let it happen.

Dales and Ross each hit a three-pointer, and the Sooners started to battle their way back.

"I don't think anybody came out here just to give up," Ross said. "We want to play as hard as we can and I always made a promise to myself I would do the best I could. I don't care if we had three seconds left and down 15, I was going to play my best."

Jamie Talbert's rebound basket cut the lead to 66-57 and it was 71-63 after Caton Hill's three-pointer. And the Sooners kept coming, twice getting within six, the last time at 73-67 on Dales' layup with 2:15 to play.

That was as close as it would get.

Taurasi muscled in a shot while drawing the fifth foul on Dales and sank the free throw to make it 76-67.

"That was huge," Bird said. "D was backing in, backing in. She's got such great ability and body control that she was able to take hits, foul Dales out and make the bucket at the same time."

Then Connecticut made sure that Bird handled the ball the rest of the way, Oklahoma had to foul her and  demonstrating the poise she had shown all season  she scored the Huskies' final six points with her free throws.

As Bird dribbled out the clock, she and Taurasi slapped hands at midcourt. Like Red Auerbach lighting his victory cigar, it was their way of saying this one was over.

"We realized this was our last game," said Bird, one of the Huskies' four senior starters. "We wanted this very badly."

Connecticut became the fourth team to go undefeated since women's basketball came under the NCAA in 1981 and was the first school to do it twice. The Huskies went 35-0 in winning their first title in 1995.

Tennessee's 1998 national champions were 39-0. Texas finished 34-0 in 1986.

UConn won its other title in 2000, when the Huskies were 36-1. Only Tennessee, with six, has more national championships than Connecticut.

The title topped off a remarkable ride for Connecticut's four seniors. Bird, Cash, Jones and Williams were 136-9 in their careers with three Final Four trips and two championships.

The Sooners were confident because they had stayed with Connecticut for most of the game in an 86-72 loss at Hartford on Dec. 22. They had the players to match Connecticut's ultra-talented guards, and they had played solid defense in the tournament, holding opponents to 36.5 percent shooting.

But Oklahoma could not hold up to Connecticut's relentless inside pressure at both ends and became the Huskies' final victim in their march to perfection.

"They can debate it as long as they like or as little as they like," Auriemma said. "I've always said that we're were the best team this year. You can't say best ever because it's a different era, different time.

"We were the best team this year, by a little bit, over a really, really good team."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.