The grim expressions said it all.
For the better part of Friday night, Coach Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Lady Vols sat stone-faced on their bench, watching the Connecticut Huskies toss in shot after shot while they struggled mightily and futilely against the reigning power in the women’s game.
Tennessee may have six national championship banners hanging in its gym, the last one coming in 1998. But that was then.
Connecticut is now, especially after easily handling the Lady Vols for the second time this season, 79-56, in the second semifinal of the women’s Final Four at the Alamodome.
On Sunday, against West Regional champion Oklahoma, the undefeated Huskies (38-0) shoot for their third national championship in eight years. A victory would make them the second team--Tennessee was the first--to win 39 games in a single season.
“It’s going to feel weird knowing Sunday is the last game,” said Connecticut guard Sue Bird, who had 18 points, as did fellow senior Asjha Jones. “But it’s also the biggest game of the year. And I don’t think our heads will get filled with other stuff.”
Tennessee (29-5), the Midwest Regional champion, spent all night searching for a clear shot at the Connecticut basket. All they got was a hand in the face, with the Huskies’ quicker defenders beating the Lady Vols to their favorite spots on the floor and messing up their plays.
The shots Tennessee took rarely were the shots Tennessee wanted; they were often the only shots the Lady Vols could get. Tennessee made only 31.4% of its shots, had 10 shots blocked, and no Lady Vol finished in double figures. Kara Lawson was the team’s top scorer with nine.
“We rushed a lot of our shots,” said Tennessee freshman forward Shyra Ely, who scored six points. “We didn’t get good looks [at the basket].”
Connecticut, the Mideast Regional champion, did miss shots. But the Huskies, thanks to pinpoint passing, unselfishness and undisguised zeal to play at a high level, never appeared to take a bad shot.
The Huskies made 16 of 33 shots in the first half, and 13 of 32 the final 20 minutes.
“You never expect anything like this going in,” said Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma. “All day long I was preparing myself for anything to happen. But the way we played defensively tonight, the way we took it to a very good team, I’m really proud of my kids right now. It’s a very special group.”
At least Summitt and Tennessee can take solace in the fact that Connecticut’s Fab Four--seniors Bird, Jones, Swin Cash (13 points) and Tamika Williams (eight)--graduate this spring.
“I was thinking about that,” Summitt said. “They are a great team, and Geno has done a great job with them. What I really admire most is how hard they play and how inspired they are on every possession.
“I think I’ll go to their graduation and cheer.”
Not all will be gone.
Connecticut sophomore starter Diana Taurasi continued her impressive play, with 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
After losing, 86-72, to Connecticut at home in January, Summitt expected this Final Four matchup to be different, or least closer.
Not a chance.
Tennessee’s only lead was 2-0, when Brittany Jackson made the game’s first field goal. Connecticut scored the next eight points and spent the rest of the game finding ways to torment the Lady Vols.
By halftime Connecticut’s lead was 38-25. With 9:38 to play the Huskies were cruising, 68-39.