Originally published April 7, 2004
NEW ORLEANS -- It was three weeks ago, on Selection Sunday, when UConn coach Geno Auriemma reflected on an arduous regular season.
The Huskies had lost four games -- a rarity in the past few seasons -- and players and coaches alike conceded they sometimes lacked the focus and intensity needed to win a third straight championship.
``The journey the first time you go to the beach is fun as a kid,'' Auriemma said that day. ``The next couple of years, you just want to get to the water. You don't want to deal with the car ride.''
But what a ride these last three weeks have been. And Tuesday night, the Huskies bathed themselves in glory.
UConn became the second team in Division I women's basketball history to win three straight national championships, gutting out a 70-61 victory over Tennessee before 18,211 at New Orleans Arena.
``There's a tremendous amount of responsibility that the kids carry around,'' Auriemma said. ``And I think it got to them this year. All we had to do was focus on three weekends in March, because the journey leading up to that was very, very hard. They had to defend it every night. It's hard to do that. It's just remarkable what they were able to do, under the circumstances.''
The Lady Vols had been the only team to win three straight titles. But the Huskies continued the assault on their archrivals' stranglehold on the record book, winning the fifth title in program history -- all in the past 10 seasons -- leaving UConn one shy of Tennessee's total.
And now, Storrs can truly proclaim itself the center of the college basketball universe. On Monday, Jim Calhoun's men defeated Georgia Tech for their second title. Tuesday, the women locked up the first twin titles in Division I history.
``It's history,'' Diana Taurasi said. ``I think being from the University of Connecticut, we always think of ourselves as a basketball school, and this year we made a definite impact on how prominent our programs are.''
Tuesday night was the conclusion of Taurasi's unparalleled UConn career, and she went out as Final Four Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row. She had 17 points to lead the Huskies, kicking the ball into the stands at the final buzzer.
Taurasi ends her career with 2,156 points, third-most all time at UConn, and Tuesday's championship left little doubt as to her place as the greatest player in UConn history.
``It's been amazing,'' Taurasi said. ``Coming in as a freshman, I never expected this at all. I know I speak for [seniors] Maria [Conlon] and Morgan [Valley], it's just unbelievable. Three in a row? You just don't do that.''
But the true hero of this championship night was center Jessica Moore, who scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half to prevent UConn from wilting under a furious Tennessee charge.
Moore twisted her right knee grabbing an offensive rebound with 6:26 left and had to leave the game for several minutes. But that rebound led to three Ann Strother free throws and an eight-point lead. Tennessee got no closer than four the rest of the way.
``I was thinking in my head, there was no way we were going to lose,'' said Moore, who had nine rebounds. ``And I was going to do anything I could to help us win.''
And while Moore was out, it was her understudy Willnett Crockett, so comfortable on the Final Four stage, who sealed it. She converted a three-point play with 3:01 left that gave UConn a 62-55 lead.
``Every time we needed a big play, you know, we got it,'' Taurasi said. ``Whether is was Jessica, Willnett -- someone made a big play every single time we needed one.''
Strother had 14 points for UConn, and Barbara Turner had 12. Shanna Zolman led Tennessee (31-4) with 19 points. Ashley Robinson had 13.
UConn (31-4) regrouped after its Big East semifinal loss to Boston College on March 8, finding the necessary balance of toughness and execution to navigate through the East Regional in Bridgeport and Hartford.
The Huskies put down Auburn with a brilliant defensive second half in the second round, outlasted 11th-seeded UC Santa Barbara in the regional semifinals, then rode Taurasi and Turner to blow past Penn State to reach New Orleans. On Sunday, they held off a determined Minnesota team in the semifinals, answering every Golden Gopher charge in the second half.
But like just about everything this season, this final victory did not come easy. It appeared it might with 6:29 left in the first half, when Strother hit UConn's fifth three-pointer for a 30-13 lead. But UConn went cold, and Tennessee scored the last 11 points of the half to cut the lead to six, then Zolman hit a jumper to open the second half to make it 30-26.
But Moore kept UConn afloat, scoring the Huskies' first eight points of the half, the last on a pick-and-roll from Conlon that offset a five-point burst by Zolman to put UConn ahead, 38-33.
Moore then drew a charge on LaToya Davis, and Taurasi cashed in the possession with a three-pointer for an eight-point lead.
``I thought when they went inside and their post game scored eight consecutive points, that was the turning point in the game,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said.
But the Lady Vols, who showed true grit in three games to reach the final, kept coming, closing to 48-45, then 50-48 with 9:51 to go with Taurasi on the bench getting a rest.
But Moore scored inside to put UConn up four, and Strother posted up Brittany Jackson to make it 54-48. Then Moore's rebound and injury and Strother's three free throws, followed soon after by Crockett's three-point play.
Tennessee came back one final time, cutting it to 62-57 with 2:22 left. But seniors Taurasi and Conlon each hit two free throws on consecutive possessions to put UConn up nine with 1:32 left.
The title was theirs.
``They have a toughness about them,'' Summitt said. ``An aggressiveness and obviously a confidence. I think they obviously get that from their coach. I thought Diana brought that as well. I have a lot of respect for Geno and I have a lot of respect for this Connecticut program.''