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Connecticut, Oklahoma seek women's crown

Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2002

SAN ANTONIO -- One is from Canada, the other from Long Island.

While their backgrounds differ, senior All-American guards Stacey Dales of Oklahoma and Sue Bird of Connecticut bring the same traits to the women's national championship game: poise, talent and an overwhelming will to win.

Dales went to Norman, Okla., from Brockville, Ontario, to help revive a moribund program. She was hit with more than a little culture shock.

''I came from Canada and stepped right into the Bible Belt,'' Dales said.

Bird took a much shorter trip to Storrs, Conn., with dreams of guiding a school expected to reach the Final Four every year.

''She wanted to go to go somewhere and build something where I kind of took the easy way out and went to a place that was already built,'' said Bird, the national player of the year.

Both players were sidetracked early by knee injuries.

Dales got hurt in her first college game -- in San Antonio. She spent the season on the bench and the Sooners plodded through an 8-19 season.

''That first year was bleak,'' Dales said. ''I'd have to watch us lose and lose.''

Practice was her refuge.

''I would go to the gym and I would have butterflies churning because I could feel how good we were going to get. It was just a constant battle between frustration and joy,'' Dales said.

Sooners coach Sherri Coale worried she might lose her budding star.

''She's a million miles away from home. She's crying every night. And then her first game she tears her ACL. I remember thinking I just hope she doesn't go home,'' the coach said.

But Dales didn't flee the Oklahoma plains. And she made an immediate impact once she could play again.

The Sooners went 15-12 her first full season in 1998-99 and have won three consecutive Big 12 championships since.

Dales has earned All-America honors the last two years and this season averaged 16.9 points, five rebounds and five assists in driving the Sooners to their first Final Four appearance.

Bird sustained a season-ending knee injury when she tore a ligament eight games into her freshman year.

''I asked coach if I could sit at the front of the bench instead of the end of bench,'' Bird said.

''I wanted to be a part of things. I worked really hard with my rehab. I didn't want this to be, 'Sue Bird could have been a great player but she hurt her knee, blah, blah blah.' I didn't want to be that story.''

Now Bird is in her third Final Four and second national championship game with one title -- in 2000 -- already won.

She's averaged 11.6 points and five assists for her career. With a victory Sunday, she could be known as the leader of perhaps the greatest team in women's college basketball history.

Bird and UConn (38-0) got the best of Dales and the Sooners (32-3) in December when the Huskies won 86-72 on their home court. Bird had 21 points and five assists. Dales got into foul trouble and finished with 11 points and seven assists.

''She's definitely the leader of their team,'' Bird said. ''She's the one that makes them go.''

Adds Dales: ''Sue Bird is the leader of Connecticut, hands down. She dictates what happens and when she's on the floor.''

The two most likely will match up head to head Sunday. At 6-foot, Dales is too tall for the 5-9 Bird.

''She posts players up who are shorter,'' Bird said. ''My post game isn't exactly up to par.''

It will be up to the coaches to find ways to guard two of the nation's best.

''You constantly have to defend them,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ''Because every time they have the ball, something good is going to happen.''



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