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U-Conn.'s Taurasi Is the Difference

In Four Years, Huskies All-American Has Done Everything, Including Dominate Lady Vols

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2004; Page D01

NEW ORLEANS, April 5 -- Connecticut senior Maria Conlon glanced over at the thin blue curtain that separated her interview room from that of her all-American teammate, Diana Taurasi, on Monday afternoon inside New Orleans Arena. Taurasi's room was filled with reporters and television cameras, and the noise spilled over into Conlon's space, but none of that surprised Conlon.

"She's a rock star," Conlon said. "She's a superstar."

"When we have [Diana Taurasi], we have the edge," Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said of his senior all-American."Kind of simple, isn't it?" (Bill Haber -- AP)

_____From The Post_____
How Connecticut and Tennessee compare.

When Taurasi takes the floor Tuesday night in the women's national championship game, she will lead the Huskies against a Tennessee team that is devoid of superstars.

Tennessee (31-3) was the top seed in the Midwest Region; top-seeded teams have won 17 of the past 22 titles. U-Conn. (30-4), the second-seeded team in the East Region, has never lost a national championship game.

The two programs are so entwined. U-Conn. has won four national titles, each time beating the Lady Vols along the way (in the final in 1995, 2000 and 2003, and in the national semifinals in 2002).

If U-Conn. wins on Tuesday night, the Huskies will claim their fifth national title, putting them one behind Tennessee's record of six championships. They will also become only the second team to win three straight titles; the only other school to accomplish the feat, of course, is Tennessee (1996-98).

"It's like a great heavyweight fight," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "I think a lot of people want to see it."

It's a heavyweight fight that has been dominated, for the most part, by the Huskies. U-Conn. holds a 12-6 edge in the series, which began with a regular season game on Jan. 16, 1995. The Huskies have won the past five meetings between the teams, and eight of the last 10.

"I think the common thread has been [Taurasi]," U-Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma said. "When [Summitt] had Chamique, they had the edge. When we have Dee, we have the edge. Kind of simple, isn't it?"

When Chamique Holdsclaw played for Tennessee (1995-99), the Lady Vols won four of their six games with the Huskies. With Taurasi, U-Conn. has won six of seven meetings with Tennessee.

Taurasi has averaged 22 points in seven games against the Lady Vols (her career average is 14.9 points). In last year's championship, a 73-68 victory for the Huskies, she scored 28 points in a dominating performance that earned her Final Four most outstanding player honors. When the teams met earlier this season, Taurasi had 18 points and five assists in an 81-67 win in Knoxville.

"She's a great player," Tennessee forward LaToya Davis said. "She's just awesome. I admire her game because she gets everybody involved . . . She's going to get her points and she's going to get her teammates open. We just need to try to contain her."

Holdsclaw, a four-time Kodak all-American, led Tennessee to its three consecutive national championships. The first two years, the Lady Vols were considered to be surprise winners -- the 1997 team entered the tournament with 10 losses. Then, in 1998, Holdsclaw was the star of Tennessee's best team, which went 39-0.

Taurasi's three trips to the national final have also come with three very different teams. When Taurasi was a sophomore, she played alongside four future WNBA first-round picks -- including national player of the year Sue Bird -- and U-Conn. completed a 39-0 season. But Taurasi said of that championship, "Sue and all them won it. That was their championship."

Last year, Taurasi carried a team that had no seniors to the title. All of those players returned this season, and the Huskies were the preseason favorites to win again this year.

Taurasi grew up watching Holdsclaw, along with Stanford's Kate Starbird and U-Conn.'s Jennifer Rizzotti. But she never really considered following Holdsclaw to Tennessee. She said that her AAU team traveled to a tournament in the state, and that she didn't really like it. Summitt said that she made only one phone call to Taurasi when Taurasi was at Don Lugo High in Chino, Calif., but "I just didn't get a good feel," Summitt said.

What Taurasi admired about Holdsclaw was "just how good she was and at the same time how much better she made her teammates," Taurasi said. "Just the way she presented herself on the court, I really liked; and how her demeanor never changed. She was amazing to watch play -- she could play inside or outside. She's still amazing."

There have been so many highlights in Taurasi's four-year career that it's hard for Conlon to pick out just one. The one she chooses to share, naturally, came against Tennessee.

"It was our freshman year, the first time we played Tennessee. She dribbles down the court and pulls up for a three-point shot with like five minutes left to go, and it put us up by two or three," Conlon said. "I'm thinking to myself, she's crazy. If she misses that shot, she's getting ripped out of the game and screamed at.

"As her career progressed, she just did more and more amazing things that topped the things before. I can't narrow it down to one or two things or even 10 things or 20 things that I've seen her do that made my mouth just kind of drop."

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