Dominant from start to finish, the Huskies stuffed Tennessee and celebrated their second national title
By Kelli Anderson
Issue date: April 19, 2000
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. The 11-year-old son of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma stared at the mother of Huskies guard Shea Ralph in disbelief. Then he broke into a huge smile. "Whenever I find money, we win," Lake said of the loose change she often finds in the arena or on her way there. "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. In a highly anticipated showdown between two storied programs and the two best teams in the country, the Huskies routed coach Pat Summitt and her 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 North Carolina versus Duke and Ali versus Frazier. It is, in the world of famous Philadelphia cheesesteakeries, the equivalent of Geno's versus Pat's.
Like those two beloved sandwich institutions, which sit across from each other at the intersection of Ninth and Passyunk in South Philly, Pat's and Geno's basketball institutions have been more enhanced than diminished by the other's presence. In all but one of their 11 games (all of which were televised nationally), including this one, something important -- a No. 1 ranking, a Final Four berth, an NCAA championship game appearance or a championship itself -- was on the line. In a Feb. 2 matchup, the second of a home-and-home series this year and the first women's game to be nationally broadcast in prime time on a weekday, 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 squaring the series at five victories apiece.
But even before the Lady Vols had arrived at the arena in Philly for the national title game, it appeared that things would not be going their way this time. At the morning shootaround junior guard and Philadelphia native Kristen (Ace) Clement sprained her right ankle when she landed on center Michelle Snow's foot. Summitt would describe later how, after Clement crumpled to the floor and started screaming in pain, the coach had to ask her to calm down because she was "scaring the team." Indeed the Lady Vols looked shell-shocked during warmups, which was no way to enter a game against Connecticut, a deep and balanced team that had, but for its one stumble against Tennessee, buried opponents by an average of 30.6 points.
The Lady Vols won the opening tip but could do little right after that. Minus the veteran leadership and ball-handling skills of Clement, Tennessee had to rely on a backcourt of freshman point guard Kara Lawson, whose usual poise vanished early, and senior Kyra Elzy, a defensive specialist who hadn't started a game all season. Not that the Lady Vols' inside game looked any better: With Connecticut center Kelly Schumacher and a rotation of Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams locking down the post, Tennessee missed or had rejected 26 shots in the paint. Tamika Catchings, the consensus player of the year, was held to six shots (and 16 points), and fellow All-America Semeka Randall to six points on 1-of-11 shooting. The Huskies were ruthless all over the court, forcing 26 turnovers (which tied their own championship-game record), blocking 11 shots (including a title-game-record nine by Schumacher) and slicing up the Lady Vols' defense with repeated backdoor cuts. Connecticut's passing was textbook: As a team they had 21 assists (compared with Tennessee's six) against 15 turnovers. "No question about it, they were awesome," said a bleary-eyed Summitt. "They schooled us."
"I've told these kids all year long that every pass we make in practice, every cut, every rebound, pretend like it's the one that's going to win the national championship," Auriemma said. "These kids have practiced like this all year long, and on the night that they had to do it, they did it better than anytime in the season. The fact that we did it against a team that's as good and has as much tradition as Tennessee makes it all the more worthwhile, because I know how hard it is to beat them, how difficult it is to deny them when they're playing for a championship."
One Husky who would not be denied was Ralph, the junior All-America who was named Final Four MVP after leading UConn in points (15), assists (seven) and steals (six), the same categories she had dominated during the season. Though she said she would rather "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 of personal redemption.
Ralph had felt responsible for two of Connecticut's recent tournament fizzles. In 1997, after she was named Big East Rookie of the Year, she 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 entire '97-98 regular season when she retore the ACL, she had the worst shooting game of her career (2 of 12) as the Huskies lost to Iowa State in the Sweet 16. "Coach says we forget the losses, but I'll never forget that one," Ralph said after the championship win. "It has motivated me all year. I've worked so hard over these past two or three years, ever since my knee injury, and I haven't wanted anything as badly as I wanted it tonight."
Another Husky who clearly wanted it was Schumacher, who had been a reserve when the season started and then grabbed a starting spot when Paige Sauer went out with a sprained right foot in January. Schumacher's aggressive play inside "broke our spirit," said Summitt. "We played her twice this year, and she never played like that," Snow said of Schumacher. "It was as if she was out of her mind. I guess you could say she wanted it more than we did."
Blocking shots is something that Schumacher has always done well. In her second year as a prep school star at John Abbott College in Quebec, she averaged six a game. "Blocking shots for me is all about timing," she said after the game. "Whether I have it or not, I'm going to go out and try to swat it anyway. I guess I can't control myself. It was working for me tonight. I'd say it was my best game defensively."
The entire Connecticut team performed in a way that suggested a certain inevitability to its winning, Tennessee's failings aside. For one of women's basketball's few elite teams, the Huskies had waited a long time -- four years -- to make a return to the Final Four, thanks in part to a series of devastating injuries. Ralph's snuffed UConn's hopes in '97; the following year star forward Nykesha Sales ruptured her right Achilles tendon in the next-to-last game of the regular season; and last year Bird tore her ACL after just eight games, and the Huskies struggled with a rotation of point guards thereafter. This year everyone was healthy when it counted, which is one reason that Connecticut's bench, which would be a top 15 team on its own, was so daunting: For the season the Huskies reserves outscored their counterparts 1,178-490.
How does Auriemma keep so many prodigiously talented players, many of them high school All-Americas, happy playing second-string? "I think Coach recruits a certain type of player that can handle that, who isn't selfish," says Jones, a reserve power forward who, like fellow backups Williams, Kennitra Johnson and Sauer, was a Parade All-America in high school. "I don't think there's anyone on this team who's selfish. We know it has to be a team effort. So it's not difficult sitting on the bench unless you're screwing up. Coach has done a real good job of teaching us that we play for ourselves, not for other teams or for the crowds. We never want to look bad."
They rarely do, and that's a credit to Auriemma, a perfectionist who demands precision on every move in every practice and who never lets his players get any ideas that they might be better than they actually are. "Every once in a while we'll have those practices that are terrible, and you understand that you're really not that good and you have to work at it every day," says Jones. "Practices are hard. They're harder than games most of the time. I think he makes it that way so we won't ever be surprised in games."
"He's the best coach," adds All-America small forward Svetlana Abrosimova, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who has at times resisted bending to Auriemma's will. "Even though we have great players, we want to win, and 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, 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, finally escaped the arena, long after the title game had ended. He's still enough of a Philly boy that he had ordered cheesesteaks (from Geno's, of course) three hours before the game started and was still considering eating them an hour after it was over. But before that -- or a congratulatory phone call from President Clinton -- could happen, Auriemma walked out of the First Union Center and toward the team bus, where a police escort and about a dozen hearty souls chanting "GEE-no! GEE-no!" awaited. After waving to the fans Auriemma disappeared inside the bus, which had been chartered from a company that seemed to have had him in mind. Indeed, if the White House had needed to track down Auriemma on the Philly streets before he reached his hotel, all its operatives would have had to do was look for a bus with big red, white and blue letters on the side spelling COACH USA.
Issue date: April 19, 2000