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Lobo, Huskies Earn Championship Respect

By Karl Hente
Special to The Washington Post
April 4, 1995

MINNEAPOLIS, APRIL 3 -- There was a good deal of discussion about strength of schedule at this weekend's NCAA women's Final Four. Tennessee could brag about its regular season schedule, while Connecticut was forced to defend its.

But after the Huskies claimed their first national championship with a 70-64 triumph over the Lady Vols at sold-out Target Center, the irony was clear. Connecticut, which hardly was challenged through much of the regular season, stayed calm and composed even with its top players in foul trouble.

And Tennessee, which had been tested time and again with a schedule featuring 19 games against teams ranked in the top 25 at the time, panicked down the stretch and gave away a nine-point, second-half lead.

"I hope this puts what these kids did this season in perspective and that everybody gives these kids the credit and the recognition they deserve," Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said.

Now the post-mortem begins: Where do the Huskies rank in the annals of women's basketball after becoming only the second team to complete an undefeated season? Texas did it in 1986, but won only 34 games to Connecticut's 35.

"It's my understanding that no team, men's, women's, has gone 35-0," Auriemma said. "That's kind of neat. Maybe people will remember us."

Auriemma heard right: Of the six Division I men's teams to finish undefeated and win a national title, North Carolina in 1957 and Indiana in 1976 amassed the most victories with 32. On the women's side, the 1985-86 Longhorns came up one victory short of the Huskies.

And Connecticut broke the NCAA women's record for victory margin at 33.2 points a game, surpassing the mark of 33 set by Louisiana Tech in 1982.

"We don't always have the most talented people on the court, but we play together and have fun and win," said Connecticut guard Jennifer Rizzotti, who was named to the all-Final Four team.

In senior forward Rebecca Lobo, the most outstanding player in the Final Four and consensus national player of the year, the Huskies may not have a player of such supreme talent as Cheryl Miller, who led Southern California to back-to-back titles in 1983 and '84, or Sheryl Swoopes, who scored a Final Four-record 47 points to lead Texas Tech to the title two years ago. But they do have a player who willed her team to victory from the first day of the season.

But perhaps it was Rizzotti -- one of complementary pieces around Lobo that makes the Huskies run so well -- who put it best Sunday evening, in silencing the critics who say Connecticut plays in a weak conference (the Big East) and doesn't play a challenging schedule, despite beating then-No. 1 Tennessee, 77-66, on national television in January in Storrs, Conn.

"People were giving us a lack of respect talking about our competition or when Tennessee came to play us {in January}, they were tired," Rizzotti said. "When we went into the tournament, people still weren't giving us respect . . . and {were saying} that we could never beat Tennessee on a neutral court.

"Now we come out here and play two incredible teams in Stanford and Tennessee. We're 35-0." U-Conn. routed Stanford, 87-60, in Saturday's semifinal.

The future appears bright for the Huskies, even without current seniors Lobo and guard Pam Webber. One recruiting service already ranks Connecticut's signees behind only Purdue's. Two Washington Post All-Met forwards will play for the Huskies next year: player of the year Amy Duran of Stone Ridge and Courtney Gaine of Whitman.

For Tennessee, Sunday's championship game brought a painful end to the college careers of centers Dana Johnson and Vonda Ward, and forward Nikki McCray. Part of the most acclaimed class coming out of high school four years ago, these players leave Tennessee with just 11 losses -- none at home or in regular season Southeastern Conference play in four seasons. But they made just one Final Four appearance and won zero national titles.

The Lady Vols (34-3) could not take advantage Sunday of the extended first-half absences of Lobo, Rizzotti and center Kara Wolters with foul trouble.

By the second half, when Lobo and Wolters were fresh, Tennessee's players started to wear down, and by the waning moments McCray and guards Michelle Marciniak and Latina Davis were left to heave desperation shots at the baskets.

"They flat-out outplayed us in the second half," Marciniak said. "That's a hard pill to swallow and a hard thing to say. But it's the truth."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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