Huskies' second title starts great debate
Posted: Monday April 03, 2000 09:30 PM
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Now that Connecticut has won its second championship in women's basketball, its fans can start arguing: Who was better? This team or the one that went 35-0 in winning the 1995 title?
It has the makings of a lively debate, but might sell the team short. How about comparing this team to the 1997-98 Tennessee team that went 39-0 and is considered the best ever in the women's game?
True, Connecticut lost once this season. But it was by one point to Tennessee, the same Tennessee team the Huskies defeated in Knoxville earlier in the season, the same team they dismantled 71-52 in Sunday night's championship game to complete the run through the NCAA tournament.
Connecticut (36-1) averaged 91.3 points in its six NCAA games and had an average victory margin of 31. No game was closer than 15. The 19-point margin over Tennessee was the second largest in a championship game.
In '98, Tennessee averaged 88.5 points in the tournament and won by an average of 25, but had to fight for its life to beat North Carolina 76-70 in the regional finals. The Lady Vols won by 18 in the title game.
With Connecticut returning almost everyone next season, the tide might be turning in the battle for supremacy in women's basketball. Even after its 1995 title, UConn had been chasing Tennessee through the final years of the decade.
Judging by what happened Sunday night, the Huskies have caught up -- or perhaps taken the lead.
"You know Tennessee is a tough team," Connecticut's Shea Ralph said. "They have upheld a tradition for as long as I've known the game of basketball and watched it, as long as I've known I wanted to play at this level.
"Then UConn came around and they have challenged them. I think being a part of this rivalry is something very, very special."
The championship certainly was special for UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who grew up in the Philadelphia area and had dozens of friends and family members among the crowd of 20,060 at the First Union Center.
Auriemma also guided Connecticut to its 1995 title. He brushed aside any talk of comparisons, but he did salute his current team's unselfishness. The Huskies were loaded with high school All-Americans and national players of the year. None averaged more than 15 points or 29 minutes a game.
"This team ... is going to go down as a great team because of the way they gave up of themselves," Auriemma said. "A lot of these kids were questioned repeatedly about, wouldn't you be happier playing somewhere else, playing more minutes, scoring more points or doing this and doing that.
"The fact that they were able to put that aside and win a national championship, I think this team sacrificed more and deserves everything it got."
And now, the Huskies want more.
"This season we had a great team and I think next year is going to be even better," All-American Svetlana Abrosimova said. "For a whole year, coach was telling us we have to be perfect, we have to make perfect passes, play great defense.
"We know that eventually we won a national championship, so we just have to repeat that."
Better next season? It's possible. Connecticut loses only Paige Sauer and Stacy Hansmeyer off this team. Neither started late in the season and each averaged just 3.9 points.
Plus, there's a top-five recruiting class coming in, led by Diana Taurasi, the national player of the year.
But next season is too far away for Ralph, the gritty 6-foot junior who underwent reconstructive knee operations less than six months apart in 1997. She then fought back to become an All-American and MVP of the Final Four.
"We're just going to enjoy this and everything about this," she said. "We've worked so hard this year, and we're going to enjoy every minute of it. I think we deserve it."
Nothing is certain, of course. Tennessee's championship in 1998 was the third straight for the Lady Vols and they returned all their key players the following season, yet didn't even get to the Final Four.
Still, when the national championship is settled in St. Louis next year, look for Connecticut to be there.