It was an epic romp.
The University of Connecticut women's basketball team delivered a screaming, running, roaring shellacking to their fiercest and most respected rival Sunday night -- winning their second national championship, 71-52 over Tennessee in a packed arena rocking with their fans.
``We came out with a purpose tonight -- to prove how good we are. And we did,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said moments after the final buzzer sounded. ``We were just a lot better than they were today.''
Led by a possessed Shea Ralph, who scored 15 points and had six steals; the unflappably elegant Svetlana Abrosimova, who poured in 14 points; and the game's most valuable player, Kelly Schumacher, the Huskies turned what had been billed as a historic battle of basketball titans into an old-fashioned blowout.
The Huskies will be greeted by their fans today at a ``Welcome Home Rally'' at Gampel Pavilion on the Storrs campus at 2 p.m., and a parade is tentatively scheduled for April 15 in Hartford.
When UConn's Kennitra Johnson dribbled away the game's final seconds, the usually businesslike Huskies fell like bowling pins at center court and into a dog pile of hugs and tears, reaching out for each other and set upon by a scrum of photographers. The team's seniors, Paige Sauer and Stacy Hansmeyer, who were pulled from the bench to play in the final minutes of the game, their faces red and tight with emotion, cried as they were called to the winners' podium.
A chant of ``We're No. 1!'' echoed through the arena as the players held Auriemma aloft and carted him off the floor and to the locker room, where President Clinton was on the line.
The victory gives UConn a 6-5 edge in its all-time series with Tennessee, including the first time they beat the Lady Vols for the national championship, in 1995. Tennessee has won six national titles.
Ralph, her face beaded with sweat, faced the cameras immediately after the game.
``We pushed hard. We prepared ourselves. We came out with a vengeance -- and we deserved it,'' she said.
If the thousands of Connecticut fans who made the city's cavernous First Union Center as friendly as UConn's cozy Gampel Pavilion cared that the game wasn't competitive, it wasn't apparent.
``I worried about it being closer -- I knew we had to get out fast,'' said John Yavis of Manchester. The 1957 UConn grad said he didn't mind the lopsided outcome.
``Not at all! Not at all!'' he said.
The seats in the arena were filled with a veritable who's who of Connecticut politicians and a Hall of Fame of former UConn players. There was Kara Wolters, who played on the undefeated 1995 championship team that is often credited with sparking interest in women's basketball, getting her picture taken with former House Speaker Tom Ritter. Gov. John G. Rowland flew in for the game, but in a black turtleneck and green-checked sportcoat, had to borrow a Husky lapel pin to identify his allegiance.
Hartford Mayor Mike was in the house, so were Bill Cosby, 1995 team members Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti, and the Philadelphia group Boyz II Men, who sang an a cappella version of the national anthem.
The game began on a sour note for Tennessee, which had to play without starting guard Ace Clement, who sprained her ankle in the morning shootaround.
The UConn fans began a throaty primal scream before Sue Bird hit the team's first basket 35 seconds into the game giving Connecticut a lead it never lost, and continued almost unabated until the women and their coaches collected the crystal trophy.
It held through a brief run by Tennessee that pulled the Vols within nine points, and intensified when Auriemma, with an insurmountable lead and a few mintutes left, subbed in the team's seniors and reserve players Christine Rigby and Marci Czel.
It quieted the Orange-togged Tennessee fans and their pep band, which had little reason to play the team's signature song, ``Rocky Top.''
Mary Moran, in her UConn sweatshirt and waving her pompons, said she did feel sympathy for Tennessee and their disheartened fans.
``I felt sorry for them because Clement got hurt. You really want everyone to be at their best,'' said Moran, who lives in Trumbull and once served as Bridgeport's mayor.
``But we'll take it.''