One 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 Long-horns 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."