SAN ANTONIO—The last one was the hardest. And it was the sweetest.
UConn completed the fourth unbeaten season in NCAA women's basketball history Sunday night at the Alamodome. But unlike virtually all of their previous victories, the Huskies found themselves in a struggle before finally winning the 2001-02 championship with an 82-70 victory over Oklahoma.
"I'm just proud of our team, that we could handle all this adversity, all this pressure, all the questions about the entire season," Bird said. "And then we were finally able to put it all away in the final game and come out on top. It's a very, very fulfilling feeling."
Along with their title two seasons ago, the seniors became the first UConn players to win two championships. And they did it by finishing 39-0, joining Tennessee in 1998 for the most victories in an unbeaten season.
"We just had one of the best seasons ever," said Cash, who was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after leading UConn with 20 points and 13 rebounds. "We fought and fought and fought all season long. I love these teammates so much. We just kept fighting all game long."
But it was the sophomore, Diana Taurasi, who made the play of the season, posting up Oklahoma All-American Stacey Dales and fouling her out on a three-point play that gave UConn a 76-67 lead with 1:31 left.
"I definitely think that was the dagger in the heart," said Taurasi, who had 13 points. "They were making a comeback, and I definitely think that shot calmed them down, and the game was over."
Bird hit two free throws with 1:04 remaining to give UConn an 11-point lead. After Rosalind Ross hit a three-pointer to make it 78-70, Bird went back to the line with 48.8 left and made both free throws. Then Williams blocked Caton Hill's three-point attempt and Bird made two more free throws with 35.2 seconds left. The score was 82-70 and UConn's celebration began.
UConn got the ball back on a turnover and Bird dribbled out the clock, then held her head in her hands as her teammates mobbed the floor. UConn's perfect season was complete.
"I was crying, man," Bird said. "I didn't want anybody to see that. There's 20 seconds left, and you're able to dribble out the clock in the national championship game to go undefeated in your senior year. I don't know. What would you do?"
It is UConn's third championship, joining the unbeaten 1995 team and the 2000 team that went 36-1. UConn becomes the second team to win three titles in the NCAA era that began in 1982. Only Tennessee, with six, has won more. At 136-9, UConn tied the NCAA record for victories in a four-year span, held by the UConn teams in 1995-98 that preceded the current senior class.
"I've always said, we're the best team this year," coach Geno Auriemma said. "You can't say best ever, because it's a different era, a different time, different circumstances. We were the best team this year, by a little bit, over a really, really good team."
Bird, the consensus national player of the year, capped the greatest individual NCAA Tournament in UConn history by scoring 14 points to finish with 111. Kara Wolters scored 108 in 1995.
UConn committed 21 turnovers, its second most this season and a championship game record, and led 73-67 when Taurasi made the game-breaking play.
It was as tense a final five minutes as UConn had played all season, but the four seniors kept their poise.
"This season, I never felt like we were going to lose," Jones said. "At the end of the game I was confident we were somehow going to pull it out. We were going to get a big stop or a big rebound - something - and we're going to win the game."
Jones had 19 points and nine rebounds for UConn. Dales led Oklahoma (32-4) with 18 points and Ross had 17.
"I'm happy for Geno," Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. "It's an unbelievable, amazing accomplishment to go undefeated not just once but twice in your career. They made plays when they had to make plays. But I'll tell you what, I think we scared them."