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Storybook Ending

Trailing Tennessee late, unbeaten Connecticut got into gear in time to conclude a charmed season

By Austin Murphy

Issue date: April 10, 1995

Sports Illustrated FlashbackOne team. One goal. One problem. With the NCAA championship seemingly in their grasp on Sunday at the Target Center in Minneapolis, the Lady Vols of Tennessee grabbed a nap. Having spent the season repeating their pithy little mantra, one team, one goal, an affirmation that was splashed across the cover of their media guide, they flinched at the moment of truth. Although Tennessee got Connecticut's trio of All-Americas in foul trouble in the first half, the Lady Vols' ballyhooed sense of mission suddenly failed them.

The Lady Vols learned this about the Huskies: They don't give you more than one chance to knock them out. There are close-knit teams, and there is Connecticut. The Huskies attend Mass together, tailgate together and play charades together. Last summer they toured Europe together, just as they'd hoped to tour the White House together while in town for a game against Georgetown earlier this season. There, they were told to assemble at a certain gate at a certain time, but the gate never opened, a foul-up to which coach Geno Auriemma alluded during his conversation with President Clinton, who phoned to congratulate the Huskies after their 70-64 title-game victory on Sunday. When the President invited the team to visit him in the Rose Garden, Auriemma thanked him, then added, "Maybe this time we'll come through the front door!"

The Huskies had arrived at the Final Four with a 33-0 record and the shared conviction that they were destined to make women's basketball history. Only one team, the 34-0 1985-86 Lady Longhorns of Texas, had put together a perfect season. "The other teams here are playing for a national championship," Auriemma told his charges. "We're playing for a piece of history."

Yet while Connecticut traveled to Minneapolis with the best record as well as the No. 1 national ranking, it was greeted by a host of detractors. To the scoffers, third-ranked Tennessee (33-2) was the team to beat. The Huskies' alleged shortcomings: They lacked depth and they'd grown fat on a Big East schedule. (Snobs deride the league as the Big Easy.) Sure, they knocked off then No. 1-ranked Tennessee 77-66 in January, but that game had been at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies' home court in Storrs, and the Southeastern Conference's Lady Vols were supposedly jet-lagged and frazzled by their onerous (read: un-Huskylike) schedule. Even after seeing her squad dismembered by Connecticut 87-60 on Blowout Saturday (the Lady Vols overran Georgia 73-51 in the other semifinal), Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer felt comfortable predicting, "Tennessee is going to win tomorrow, but I think it will be a good game."

The Huskies have used such skepticism for sustenance all season. They take their cue from Auriemma, the voluble Philadelphian with the Eddie Murphy patter and the Eddie Munster hairline. Auriemma seemed to spend most of his time in Minneapolis searching for his six-year-old son, Michael, who wandered off at every opportunity, and tendering sarcastic false apologies for his team. "To be any good," he said, "you have to play in a big conference or speak with a Southern accent, I guess."

Fourteen minutes into the championship game, Auriemma's sardonic pronouncement was looking like prophecy. The Huskies, down 28-25, weren't playing so much to make history as they were to keep their heads above water. Two of their All-Americas -- 5'5" junior point guard Jennifer Rizzotti and 6'4" senior forward Rebecca Lobo -- had three fouls apiece; the other, 6'7" sophomore center Kara Wolters, had two. Benching Wolters and Lobo, Auriemma sent out a Lilliputian lineup, the most formidable member being 6-foot forward Jamelle Elliott. The instructions: hang on until halftime. By hook and by crook, with cheap buckets, filched rebounds and big defensive stops, the Huskies did hang on. The Lady Vols left the court at the half having built their lead, but only to six points. Their best chance had come and gone.

"The non-All-Americas came through," said Elliott, a junior who had spent much of the half banging bodies with the likes of Tennessee's 6 4" Tiffani Johnson and 6'6" Vonda Ward. "I can't remember the last time I was in the game without either Rebecca or Kara. I was getting bounced around pretty good."

Best known earlier in her career for her ability to D-up against much taller players, Elliott has, with Auriemma's coaxing, evolved into a scorer (she averaged 14.8 points per game in the tournament). "He wants me to look for my shot instead of just rebounding and screening all the time," says Elliott, who followed her 21-point output against Stanford with 13 points against the Lady Vols, then elicited squeals of joy from her teammates when she was named to the all-tournament team.

"It's about time she got some recognition," said Wolters. Wistfully, Wolters added, "If I only had her physical strength and her mentality."

To summarize: 20 minutes after slipping an NCAA championship ring onto her finger and one day after single- handedly destroying Stanford with a 31-point performance, Wolters was verbally scourging herself for her inadequacies.

Typical Wolters. In Minneapolis the first thing out of her mouth upon seeing VanDerveer, her coach on the U.S. team in last summer's world championships, was an apology. "Sorry I didn't write," she said.

One of the things that made Wolters attractive to Connecticut was this willingness to recognize her flaws and to address them. Between her junior year at Holliston (Mass.) High and her freshman year in Storrs, she dropped 60 pounds. "A lot of tall kids play because they're tall," says UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey. "Kara plays because she loves playing and wants to be good."

Kara's father, Bill, recalls his daughter as a young girl pestering him to come out and shoot hoops with her in the driveway. "She was always fighting the fact that she was tall," he says. "Basketball gave her a sense of worth. It gave her a way of saying, `You made fun of me, but I'll show you I have this talent.' "

Bill, then known as Willie, was himself a center, under Bob Cousy at Boston College in the mid-'60s, and had a cup of coffee with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1968. Though roughly 100 colleges expressed interest in Kara, her old man's alma mater -- the school she wanted to attend -- wasn't interested. The Eagles have had several chances to rue this decision, most recently on Feb. 19, when Wolters blocked eight shots and grabbed 10 boards in 25 minutes as the Huskies squeaked past BC 86-34.

The fact that she is a self-starter and her own best critic has failed to insulate Wolters from frequent blasts of Auriemma invective. The Huskies trailed Tennessee 50-46 with 11:53 to play when Wolters committed her fourth foul. During an ensuing TV timeout, the coach put his right palm on the back of Wolters's neck and spoke into her ear: "Yesterday you helped us get into the championship game. Today, you're helping us lose it. We're not going to win unless you start playing better."

Wolters would respond by becoming a defensive presence down the stretch, but at the time Auriemma's anxiety was understandable. He had no way of knowing that the Rebecca Lobo Show was about to begin.

Before the Stanford game Auriemma had taken it upon himself to have a chat with Lobo, who had spent the week collecting various Player of the Year plaques. Do not, he advised her, attempt to justify the week's haul of hardware. "Don't try to prove you're the Player of the Year. Let the game come to you." And Lobo did just that, scoring a quiet 17 points.

Now the situation was different. Lobo had scored but six points and was down to the last 12 minutes of her college career. This was not the time to sit back and let the game come to her. It was the time to show 18,000 people at the Target Center why she was the consensus Player of the Year. Like the voracious houseplant in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, Lobo commanded, Feed me!

Her teammates did, and she took over the game. In rapid succession Lobo scored a layup off a post-up move; posted up again, drove the lane and hit a reverse layup; pulled up and drained an 18-footer from the left wing; then nailed a 17-footer. On Tennessee's next possession, Rizzotti made a steal and sailed in for a layup. After being ahead by nine earlier in the half, the Lady Vols now led 58-57. Shaken, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt called timeout with 7:06 left.

Up to that point, one of the championship's anticipated subplots had not fully developed: the matchup between two of the country's best point guards, Rizzotti and the Lady Vols' Michelle Marciniak. As one might guess from Marciniak's lovingly sculpted blonde bangs, her game has a few extra flourishes; she is partial to spin moves and behind-the-back passes. Earlier in her career her penchant for glitzy play often landed her in Summitt's doghouse, despite the unusually strong bond they share.

Summitt, you see, went into labor while on a recruiting visit to Marciniak's house in Macungie, Pa., four years ago. The coach made her pitch, flew back to Knoxville, Tenn., and gave birth to her son, Tyler, hours later. "I called my mother, my mother-in-law and then Michelle," says Summitt. "She sent me flowers the next day. Shortly after that, she called to tell me she was going to Notre Dame."

Marciniak's decision was part parochial, part statistical. A 24-point-a-game scorer at Allentown Central Catholic, she wanted to continue lighting up the scoreboard as a collegian, and she thought she would have a better chance to do it under the Golden Dome. Disillusioned after the Irish lost 17 games in her freshman year, she transferred to Tennessee. Recalling that Summitt had gone into labor in Marciniak's house, folks around Knoxville wondered, Would the new girl rate special treatment?

Absolutely -- harsh treatment. Lady Vol assistants used to beg Summitt to say something, anything, nice to Mar- ciniak before practice ended. Once Marciniak got her showboating under control, Summitt backed off.

Rizzotti's style is less ornate than Marciniak's. In the first half on Sunday it was also less effective. In what she would describe as "one of the worst halves I've ever played," Rizzotti had four points, three fouls and no assists.

Unlike the Lady Vols, she finished strong. After Summitt's timeout and several missed opportunities by both teams, Elliott sank a layup that tied the score at 61 with 2:17 remaining. Then Rizzotti delivered the bucket on which the game turned. Gathering in a long defensive rebound, she went coast to coast with Marciniak right with her. An instant before she reached the basket, Rizzotti crossed over to her left and sank a sweet, lefthanded layup with 1:51 remaining.

"I should have tied her up or fouled her," Marciniak said later, " 'cause that got their momentum going." Indeed, the Huskies never relinquished their lead.

There was a charming, unrehearsed flavor to UConn's championship celebration. Uncertain of the etiquette of cutting down the nets, the Huskies milled around the ladder. One asked Dailey, the assistant coach, "What do we do?"

Having snipped the last strand, Auriemma was attempting to descend the ladder when -- despite his feeble protests -- he was surrounded and borne away on the shoulders of his players. They carried him off the court, into a tunnel, into history.

Issue date: April 10, 1995

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