NEW ORLEANS, April 6 -- One night after the Connecticut Huskies routed Georgia Tech to win the NCAA men's championship, the eyes of the college basketball world turned to see if their female counterparts could make U-Conn. the first school to win both titles in the same season.
Diana Taurasi and her teammates were up to the challenge, keeping arch rival Tennessee at arm's length for nearly the entire game en route to a 70-61 win that gave them their third consecutive championship and fifth overall.
Diana Taurasi, right, leads Connecticut to a third consecutive national title, 70-61, over Tennessee. It is the first time the same school has won both the men's and women's basketball championships in the same season.
(Mark Humphrey - AP)
"U-Conn. domination! Bottom line!" Taurasi shouted after her team received its trophy.
Taurasi, one of the best players the women's game has seen, closed her college career with 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting as Connecticut (31-4) beat the Lady Vols (31-4) for the sixth straight time.
"She just turns it on like nobody I've ever seen," Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma said of the tournament's most outstanding player. "And that's why she is who she is. She's different. She's unique."
Connecticut, which also won titles in 1995 and 2000, joined the Lady Vols (1996-98) as the only programs to win three in a row.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Huskies began their celebration. Senior point guard Maria Conlon threw the ball toward the roof of New Orleans Arena and Taurasi caught it at midcourt. She turned with a grin on her face and punted it with her left foot into section 101, 30 rows deep.
Connecticut took control early and built a 17-point lead in the first half, but with 3½ minutes left in the game, Tennessee got to 59-55. The Huskies answered with a disciplined possession that ended with reserve forward Willnett Crockett posting up with the shot clock about to expire. She turned and powered the ball up to the hoop while drawing a foul from Sidney Spencer, then converted the free throw to get the margin to 62-55. They were Crockett's only points.
"It was huge," Taurasi said. "That was probably the biggest play of the game."
The Lady Vols kept fighting, as they had throughout the tournament, but none of their three-pointers were on target.
"I'm proud of this team," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, whose program has won a record six championships but none since 1998. "I hope that they'll remember the great season and the great team and the great run."
The Lady Vols dug themselves a 30-13 hole by missing 16 of their first 21 shots, but scored the last 11 points of the first half to get within six. Tennessee's Shanna Zolman opened the second half with a jumper from the corner, and it was 30-26.
Connecticut generated layups for center Jessica Moore (14 points) on four of five possessions, but Zolman kept the Lady Vols on pace with a pull-up jumper and two three-pointers. Tasha Butts added a pair of free throws and Tennessee was at 41-38 with 14½ minutes left.
The Huskies needed only 90 seconds to reassert themselves. Barbara Turner (12 points) scored twice in the lane, Butts missed a pair of three-pointers for Tennessee and Taurasi responded by calmly pulling up for a three over LaToya Davis.
"They had an answer for everything we did," said Zolman, who had a game-high 19 points and nine rebounds.
Trailing 48-38, the Lady Vols called their third timeout, then scored the next seven points. A three by Brittany Jackson cut it to 50-48 with 9:51 remaining and Auriemma waved Taurasi, who had been getting in a quick rest on the bench, back into the game.
Her presence seemed to do the trick for Connecticut on its next two possessions. Moore had room to receive a feed in the post and lay the ball in. Ann Strother (14 points) followed with a similar basket and the lead was back to six.
"We gave up too many easy baskets," Summitt said. "This Connecticut team, they're a great passing team. They've really got great vision. They see the open players and deliver the knockout punch."
Talk of a first-ever championship sweep started in the preseason, though only one school, Duke in 1999, had even participated in both title games. (The Blue Devils lost both.)
But like the men's team, the Connecticut women hit a few bumps along the way in the regular season. They blew a big lead at home against Duke, a fellow title contender, and lost on a buzzer-beating three-pointer. Ten days later they lost by 15 at Notre Dame. Then after righting themselves with 12 consecutive wins, the Huskies lost at Villanova and bowed out of the Big East tournament in the quarterfinals against Boston College.
"Four losses seemed like it's the end of the world," Taurasi said Monday.
"There were times this year when we were really down," Strother said. "Down on ourselves and what we could do, and the Final Four seemed so far away and not even in the picture."
As Tuesday night neared Wednesday morning, the Huskies were dealing with a whole different set of emotions.
"Feels tingly," Taurasi said with her customary grin. "You really feel light. You just -- tingly is the only word I can use."