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Swat Team

Led by scrappy guard Shea Ralph, Connecticut smacked down archrival Tennessee to win its second national title

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Posted: Tuesday April 04, 2000 02:45 PM

By Kelli Anderson

  Block party Nothing came easy for the Lady Vols as Schumacher (11) rejected a title-game-record nine shots. Al Tielemans
Sports Illustrated Marsha Lake had found her seat just moments before the start of the women's NCAA title game at Philadelphia's First Union Center when she spotted Michael Auriemma sitting several seats over. "Forty-six cents!" she yelled to him. Michael, the young son of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, stared at Lake, the mother of Huskies shooting guard Shea Ralph, in disbelief. Then he broke into a huge smile. "Whenever I find money, we win," Lake explained. "Before the LSU game [the East Regional final], I found 15 cents, and we won by 15. Usually the more I find, the bigger the win."

Championship victories don't get much bigger than the one that No. 1 Connecticut scored over No. 2 Tennessee on Sunday night. In a highly anticipated showdown the Huskies routed coach Pat Summitt's Lady Vols 71-52 to win their second NCAA title -- five years to the day after winning their first, also over Tennessee. It wasn't the game that had been expected from the two giants of women's basketball. As rivalries go, this one has earned a place among the classics, such as Duke vs. North Carolina and Ali vs. Frazier. It is, in the world of famous Philly cheesesteakeries, the equivalent of Geno's vs. Pat's.

Like those two sandwich institutions, which sit across from each other at the intersection of Ninth and Passyunk in South Philly, Geno's and Pat's basketball programs have been more enhanced than diminished by the other's presence. In all but one of their 11 matchups, including Sunday's, something important -- a No. 1 ranking, a Final Four berth, an NCAA championship game appearance or a championship -- was on the line. For a showdown on Feb. 2, the second of a home-and-home series this year, Tennessee traveled to Storrs and ruined Connecticut's perfect record with a 72-71 win, avenging a seven-point loss to the Huskies on Jan. 8 in Knoxville and evening the series at five victories apiece.

But Sunday's game belonged to UConn, a deep and balanced team that had, but for that one stumble against the Lady Vols, buried opponents, by an average of 31 points. With Tennessee minus one starter -- shooting guard Kristen Clement had sprained her ankle in the morning shootaround and didn't play -- the Huskies went for the throat, forcing 26 turnovers, blocking 11 shots (including a title-game-record nine by 6'5" junior center Kelly Schumacher) and slicing up Tennessee with repeated backdoor cuts (21 assists on 31 UConn field goals). Using waves of defenders, the Huskies held Lady Vols forward Tamika Catchings, the consensus Player of the Year, to six shots and 16 points and fellow All-America Semeka Randall to six points. Connecticut never trailed, and led by as many as 27 points in the second half. "No question about it, they were awesome," said a bleary-eyed Summitt.

Most impressive of all was Ralph, the junior All-America who was named the Final Four MVP after leading the Huskies in points (15), assists (seven) and steals (six), the same categories she dominated during the season. Though she said she wished she could "split the MVP award down the middle" and give one half to Schumacher and the other to point guard Sue Bird, who had 19 points in the semifinal against Penn State and no turnovers in the two games in Philly, Ralph was thrilled to win a championship and complete a long journey to personal redemption. She had felt responsible for two of Connecticut's recent tournament fizzles.

In 1997, after she was named the Big East Rookie of the Year, Ralph tore the ACL in her right knee in a first-round game against Lehigh and watched her teammates lose to eventual national champion Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final. In last year's tournament, after missing the 1997-98 season when she retore the ACL, she had the worst shooting game of her career (2 of 12) as UConn lost to Iowa State 64-58 in the Sweet 16. "Coach says we forget the losses, but I'll never forget that one," says Ralph. "It has motivated me all year."

Ralph has also been motivated by her desire to prove that though much of her speed and jumping ability has been lost to the two knee injuries, she still belongs in the starting lineup of an elite team. "I always knew I would play again [after the operations], but I never knew how good I'd be or what kind of impact I'd have on my team," says Ralph. "My teammates backed me when I was playing so bad I didn't belong on a college basketball team. They pushed and made me into what I am."

She has returned the favor. Her aggressive rehabilitation and hard work on the court served as an example to Bird, the preternaturally poised point guard whose return after missing most of last season with an ACL injury was crucial to the Huskies' success this season. "Watching her play," says Bird, "I knew I would be able to come back 100 percent."

Even players with perfectly good knees don't throw themselves around the floor the way Ralph does. In the final she bloodied an elbow and took a Lady Vol's elbow to the gut -- all that and her knees ached as usual. "Shea's not our best player, but the best player isn't always the one your kids rally around," says Auriemma. "Our players rally around her. She's our heart."

What does that make Auriemma, the perfectionist who recruited one of the most talented groups of players in women's college basketball history? "He's the best coach," says All-America small forward Svetlana Abrosimova, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who has at times resisted bending to Auriemma's will. "He has shown us that it's not necessarily the best players who win national championships, it's the best team. On the days when someone wasn't ready to play or wasn't shooting the ball well, the team was always there."

Except when it slipped out the locker-room door, as the Huskies had done by the time Auriemma, who grew up in nearby Norristown, Pa., finally escaped the arena early Monday. (He's still enough of a Philly boy that he had ordered cheesesteaks from Geno's three hours before the game started and was still considering eating them an hour after it had ended.) Auriemma walked out of the arena and toward the team bus. About a dozen fans chanted, "GEE-no! GEE-no!" After waving to the fans, Auriemma disappeared inside the vehicle, which had been chartered from an appropriate company -- Coach USA

Issue date: April 10, 2000

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