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Huskies Hang Onto NCAA Women's Title

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, right, and guard Diana Taurasi, left, celebrate their 73-68 win over Tennessee in the NCAA Women's Final Four championship game on Tuesday, April 8, 2003 in Atlanta. Taurasi scored 28 points to lead Connecticut. To the right of Taurasi is Cheryl Marra of the NCAA.
AP
Diana Taurasi tormented Tennessee again, and Connecticut proved it could rebuild - and still repeat.

Leading a young team that had four new starters, Taurasi ignored the sore back and bum ankle that have bothered her for several weeks and carried Connecticut to a 73-68 victory over Tennessee on Tuesday night for its second straight national championship.

Taurasi, who averaged 22 points in her first five games against Tennessee, scored 28 in this one with a variety of the flashy moves that made her the national player of the year and the Final Four's most outstanding player.

The Huskies (37-1) won this third title game between the nation's two premier programs, and it was mostly because of Taurasi, who became the leader on a team that lost four starters.

She made 8-of-15 shots, including four 3-pointers. She scored on a floater in the lane, a backdoor cut and even threw in a shot left-handed.

Still, Tennessee (33-5) closed with a rush after trailing by 13. When Brittany Jackson pump faked and then made a 3-pointer as she fell forward, the lead was down to 70-66 with 1:01 left.

Gwen Jackson's layup drew Tennessee to 71-68 with 21 seconds remaining. But Ann Strother, one of two freshman who start for Connecticut, sank two free throws, and freshman Ashley Battle intercepted Tennessee's inbounds pass.

The Huskies moved the ball so quickly that Tennessee could not foul, and fittingly, Taurasi ended up with the ball. She flung it into the stands at the buzzer and Connecticut began yet another victory celebration.

If any more evidence was needed that Connecticut has supplanted Tennessee as the nation's top program in women's hoops, this was it.

The title is the fourth overall for the Huskies, who also beat Tennessee in the 1995 and 2000 championship games and now have beaten the Lady Vols four straight times.

Connecticut denied Tennessee and coach Pat Summitt a seventh title and delivered further insult to a program UConn coach Geno Auriemma had dubbed the "Evil Empire."

Taurasi and Co. made sure it did not strike back.

Strother finished with 17 points, and the other freshman starter, Barbara Turner, came up with 10 points on five tough baskets inside.

Maria Conlon, the spunky 5-foot-9 guard who looks so out of place among the other sleek athletes on the floor, contributed 11 points, six assists and four rebounds for the Huskies.

Those efforts brought another title in what should have been a rebuilding year from last season's 39-0 club.

Instead, the UConn machine just kept grinding out victories and the Huskies became the third repeat champion, following Tennessee (1996-98) and Southern Cal (1983-84).

They finished with six straight victories after their 70-game winning streak was broken by Villanova in the Big East tournament final.

Tennessee, deeper and more experienced, got 18 points from its gritty point guard, Kara Lawson, plus 15 from Gwen Jackson and 13 from Brittany Jackson.

But even that wasn't enough for the Lady Vols on this night. When it was over, Lawson walked slowly to the bench with her head down and stood with her hands on her hips, her career over without a national title.

Connecticut, on the other, might be on a championship roll. The Huskies have no seniors, so everyone is back next season.

Ahead by five at halftime, Connecticut began to take control at the start of the second half, and Taurasi — naturally — was the key.

She started the half with a 3-pointer, Turner scored inside and Conlon hit a 3. Suddenly the lead was up to 11, and not even the thousands of orange-clad fans )n Uhe Georgia Dome could urge Tennessee all the way back.

Taurasi converted two three-point plays, one on a picture-perfect backdoor cut, to help keep Connecticut comfortably ahead. Her niftiest basket came when she drove the right baseline and made an off-balance, left-handed shot for a 65-54 lead.

Things certainly were going UConn's way, but Tennessee wasn't finished and made its late run.

If Connecticut's young players were nervous being on this stage, it certainly didn't show. They attacked Tennessee early with near-flawless execution, scoring off screens, getting the ball inside to Turner and Moore and making 3-pointers — six in all in the opening 20 minutes.

But even with all of that, UConn couldn't shake the Lady Vols. Tennessee slowed the Huskies some by going to a zone, crashed the boards relentlessly and got back in it after trailing by seven.

It was tied at 30 when Tennessee's Tye'sha Fluker scored off a strong move on the block. After nearly 19 minutes, they had played to a standstill — until Taurasi got her hands on the ball, that is.

Her 3-pointer from the deep left corner put UConn back ahead — for good, as it turned out — and the Huskies got the ball again when Conlon went down on her knees to take it away.

Just before the buzzer sounded, Willnett Crockett threw in a high-arching shot from right in front of the basket for a 35-30 UConn lead.

It was another example of all the things that went right for Connecticut, the national champion again.