Talented UConn looms over women's Final Four

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

SAN ANTONIO -- Tennessee, Duke and Oklahoma have everything it takes to win a national championship -- talented players, smart coaches, ambition and drive.

They also have a problem. The other team in this women's Final Four is Connecticut.

That would be unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Connecticut, with four All-Americans in its lineup, a team so dazzling and skilled that it's being talked about as perhaps the best of all time.

''They're playing super,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said Wednesday. ''I turned on (a tape of) the Old Dominion game last night and thought, 'Oh, I don't need to watch this and try to sleep.'''

Tennessee (29-4) is the next team to get a shot at stopping the Huskies (37-0). They'll meet in the second national semifinal on Friday night at the Alamodome, the largest venue yet for the women's championship.

Oklahoma (31-3) plays Duke (31-3) in the first game. The championship game is Sunday night.

Connecticut looms so large over this event that even Summitt, who has won six national titles and is making her 13th Final Four appearance, says the Huskies are without question the nation's dominant team this season.

Tennessee sophomore Courtney McDaniel doesn't think the Lady Vols are far behind.

''I really think these are the two best teams in the country,'' McDaniel said. ''We'll find out who has the most heart and passion.''

Tennessee certainly has depth -- 11 players scored in the Midwest Regional final win over Vanderbilt -- and size, with Michelle Snow and Ashley Robinson, both 6-feet-5 and three inches taller than any UConn starter.

But the Lady Vols had that same edge when they played Connecticut on Jan. 5 and the Huskies outrebounded them 41-33 in winning 86-72.

''Their posts play with just incredible energy and aggressiveness,'' Summitt said. ''We've talked about our inside game and our bigs having to play big. We have to be able to battle them on the boards.''

Even if Tennessee wins that battle, the Lady Vols still must deal with the nation's best backcourt, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Bird is the all-knowing, all-seeing point guard. Taurasi is a fearless shooter who scored 32 in the first meeting with Tennessee.

Connecticut's performance against Old Dominion in the Mideast Regional final showed Tennessee what it will be up against. The Huskies made their first 13 shots and 19 of their first 21 in racing to a 49-28 lead. They ended up winning 85-64.

All that talent, plus the determination of Bird and the three other seniors -- Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones -- to set a standard for others to follow.

''We wanted to come in and put a name for ourselves on this program,'' Williams said. ''I think we have done that to this point, but we know we can make even greater history in the next couple of games.''

Duke, in the Final Four for the second time, was left with just eight players when sophomores Rometra Craig and Crystal White left the team in December.

Plenty of talent remained, however. Sophomore Alana Beard is a first-team All-American. Iciss Tillis, another sophomore, can play in the low post at 6-4 yet step outside and shoot 3-pointers. Freshman Monique Curry is a relentless penetrator who has a knack for drawing fouls.

They've taken Duke on a 22-game winning streak since a loss to Tennessee on Dec. 27.

''It's been a journey,'' Currie said. ''We have been through a lot. All the trials that we have been through have only made us closer. We are more confident in one another, we trust one another. We are best friends and this helps because it carries over to the court.''

Oklahoma is on a nice roll of its own, winning 17 of the last 18 en route to its first Final Four appearance. The Sooners have a two-time All-American in guard Stacey Dales and a good scorer in LaNeishea Caufield, who is averaging 21.5 points in the tournament. They might be the only team that can match Connecticut in passing and scoring.

OU has won its four tournament games by an average of 22 points. In a 94-60 victory over Colorado in the West Regional final, the Sooners buried the Buffaloes with a Connecticut-like 32-6 run.

They've succeeded without a true center. Jamie Talbert is the tallest starter at 6-2.

''It's no secret we don't have any height,'' Dales said. ''We haven't had a post player for five years, but we play together and we're quick to the ball. We're 31-3. Obviously, height isn't a big difficulty.''



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