No one knew for sure what to make of Connecticut after the four seniors who led the Huskies to an undefeated season and national championship last year departed for the WNBA. Connecticut gained a talented freshman class, but was left with so much inexperience.
Sophomore forward Ashley Battle, a reserve on last year's team, heard the whispers that Connecticut would stumble, angering both her and her teammates.
"We've used that as motivation," Battle said. "A lot of people thought, 'Oh, this is the year that we're going to get Connecticut. They're going to stink this year.' That's a slap in the face. It hurts when people don't think that you're as good as you know that you are. So we used it in a positive way to come back."
The Huskies (36-1) certainly didn't tumble this season. They continued to win, extending their winning streak to 70 games before suffering their first loss, in the Big East tournament final to Villanova. On Tuesday night, they will play Tennessee for their second straight national championship.
Although most observers point to lone returning starter Diana Taurasi as the reason Connecticut enjoyed such a successful season, the Huskies could not have reached the title game without a strong supporting cast.
At first, Taurasi tried to single-handedly carry the team. Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma knew, however, that he had to get his other players more involved.
"It would have been easy to just [stand around and watch Taurasi], and it was like that during practice," Auriemma said. "If Diana didn't touch the ball, we didn't score. She either made plays for them or she scored herself. That lasted about two or three weeks. As we started to feel more comfortable, we're a little bit better at playing without her being as involved."
The biggest concern was bringing along the highly touted freshmen -- Barbara Turner, Willnett Crockett, Ann Strother and Nicole Wolff.
Although some Connecticut fans were expecting them to fill the void left by Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams, they wanted to make their own mark.
"We know that we can't compare with that class and we don't try to," Turner said. "We just go out and try to make a name for ourselves."
The coaching staff and veteran players constantly told the freshmen not to worry about the winning streak or returning to the national championship game.
"They told us to just believe in ourselves and we'll come together as a team and then go from there," Crockett said. "That's what we did."
The freshmen have played an important role in continuing Connecticut's successful run, but Battle and the other reserves from last season -- junior point guard Maria Conlon, sophomore center Jessica Moore and junior guard Morgan Valley -- have been just as significant. They would like nothing more than to show the doubters that they are fully capable of leading Connecticut to another national title.
"Winning a national championship last year was awesome, but we were in the shadow of those tremendous seniors who did it all for us," Moore said.
"For us to win this on our own sweat, on our own work, it's going to be awesome."
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens, who lives in the Atlanta suburbs during the offseason, invited Tennessee's coaches and players to his home for a barbecue on Saturday night. No word on whether Owens used his infamous Sharpie to sign autographs for the players. . . .
Washington Redskins Coach Steve Spurrier, a close friend of Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, called her before the Duke game to wish her good luck this weekend. . . .
Two Washington Mystics players are attending this weekend's Final Four. Stacey Dales-Schuman is working as a commentator for ESPN, and Chamique Holdsclaw, who won three titles at Tennessee, is here to support the Lady Vols.