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School of Champions

U-Conn. First to Win Both Men's, Women's Basketball Titles

By Colin Fitzgibbons and Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 7, 2004; Page A01

STORRS, Conn., April 6 -- With 90 seconds left in the college women's basketball national championship game, University of Connecticut supporters rushed the court of Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on this rural campus. That their team was playing nearly 1,500 miles away did nothing to dull the fans' enthusiasm over the school's second national title in as many nights, and an unprecedented sweep.

The Connecticut women's basketball team defeated Tennessee, 70-61, on Tuesday in New Orleans to win the national championship, a day after the school's men's team had done the same by beating Georgia Tech in San Antonio. Since the women's tournament was first contested in 1982, no school has won both titles in the same season.

Fans at Connecticut campus celebrate women's title, one night after men's team also won one. (Bob Child -- AP)

"I've never felt this much pride than the last two nights," sophomore Laurent Matson said. "It was crazy. We weren't just going to sit in our seats. We definitely had to charge the court."

Nearly 5,000 fans watched the women's championship game on four huge television screens inside Gampel Pavilion. The house lights were off, disco lights were on, and the school band played. The celebration spilled into the streets as students cheered, lit fireworks and mobbed any camera with a spotlight.

"I've been following U-Conn. since I was 12 years old, so this was amazing," said senior Scott Nichols, who watched both the men's and women's finals at Gampel. "After the past two nights, I'm exhausted."

The men's victory was their second championship in six years. The women's team won its fifth national title, and third in a row, something that only one other women's program -- Tennessee -- had done.

The night's celebration came just hours after grandfathers with small children on their shoulders mingled with college students still in their sweatpants, as all waited to welcome the men's team home.

The local newspaper sold commemorative issues along with pom-poms to excited patrons. Fans were at the doors of the university's bookstore, the U-Conn. Co-op, this morning waiting for the 8 a.m. opening, when they could purchase commemorative T-shirts. The store ordered 20,000 shirts, 26 varieties celebrating the men's victory, 27 for the women's and 2 commemorating the historic double play, the sales from which likely will account for 25 percent of the store's total revenue this year, according to Bill P. Simpson, president and general manager of the U-Conn. Co-op.

"We have a huge local base of fans," said Erica Pagliuco, manager of marketing for the U-Conn. Co-op. "We don't have any pro teams in Connecticut, and they tend to follow U-Conn. because of that. It brings everybody out."

How did a school whose arena sits just past Paul's Pumpkin Patch and a few blocks from the dairy farm become the epicenter of the college basketball world? Two coaches who arrived in Storrs within a year of each other can claim much of the credit.

Women's coach Geno Auriemma was hired in 1985 to take over a program that had had just one winning season in its 11 years of existence. Nineteen years later, Auriemma has led U-Conn. to 18 winning seasons and five national titles, one shy of Tennessee's record of six. A year after Auriemma arrived, Jim Calhoun took over the men's program, which had endured four straight losing seasons. Monday night, Calhoun became just the third active men's coach with multiple national titles.

For home games, Gampel Pavilion's 10,167 seats are filled with fans, regardless of which team is playing. Both teams also play a handful of games at Hartford Civic Center, about a 30-minute drive from campus, and that arena of 16,294 seats is also regularly filled. The women have sold out their last 94 home games.

The success of the basketball teams have also helped the university evolve from a "regional institution to a top 25 national public research institution," Athletic Director Jeffrey A. Hathaway said. The university is in the midst of an ambitious $2.3 billion, 20-year publicly financed building program, and the success of the basketball programs was instrumental in the passage of the program, Hathaway said.

Applications are up, which allows the school to be more selective in its admissions, Hathaway said; this year, U-Conn. had 20,000 applicants for 3,200 slots in the freshman class.

A glance at the Huskies' rosters shows their national pull athletically: Only one player on each team (walk-on Ryan Swaller and starting point guard Maria Conlon) is from the state of Connecticut. Men's star Emeka Okafor is from Texas, and women's star Diana Taurasi hails from California.

Both the men's and women's teams started the season No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason polls. Taurasi and Okafor graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue. Both teams then struggled at times during the conference schedule. Neither team entered the NCAA tournament as a number one seed. But both expected to play in the championship game.

When the final buzzer sounded in New Orleans, Conlon threw the ball into the air. Taurasi caught it, and then punted it into the stands. Confetti poured down. Fans in the stands waved newspapers proclaiming "UConn. Wins!"

Just before the presentation of the trophy, Auriemma addressed the fans inside New Orleans Arena.

"When our basketball program, when we became successful, our fans, their expectation level was to win championships," he said. "Right now, I don't think there is one single person in Connecticut that isn't unbelievably proud of our two basketball programs."

It was, as one hand-written sign in the crowd of 18,211 at New Orleans Arena proclaimed, Connecticut's "Double-date with Destiny."

Fitzgibbons reported from Storrs; Powell reported from New Orleans.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company