Last Friday night, on the eve of yet another No. 1-versus-No. 2 showdown between the Connecticut and Tennessee women, Huskies sophomore guard Diana Taurasi sat outside a sports bar in the lobby of the team hotel in Knoxville, her hair pulled back into a ponytail and her legs curled beneath her. As assorted UConn coaches, boosters and family members swirled around her, she smiled, laughed and generally seemed about as tense as Enya on Prozac. That the next afternoon she would be back in the national spotlight for the first time since her 1-for-15 shooting flameout against Notre Dame in last year's Final Four didn't seem to bother her in the least. In fact, even when her former AAU coach, Steve Kavaloski, dropped by, the only game-related advice he gave her was, simply, Don't fade away on your jump shot.
The next afternoon, in front of 24,611 fans—an NCAA record for a women's game—Taurasi neither faded nor missed the opportunity to quiet the home crowd, most of whom were decked out in hazard-cone orange. In leading the Huskies (16-0) to an 86-72 victory, Taurasi scored a career-high 32 points, making 11 of 16 shots from the field. She also showcased a variety of playground-style leaners and drives that had a pair of WNBA scouts behind the baseline murmuring and shaking their heads in appreciation. "We had no answer for her," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose Lady Vols lost for the first time after 11 wins. "Diana just had her way today."
For Taurasi, it was as much of a breakout performance as a top player on the nation's top team can have. Last year as a freshman, she led an injury-depleted team to the Final Four, but she was mainly a three-point gunner. This year Taurasi has played more aggressively, becoming as much of a threat to slash to the hole as shoot threes. At 6 feet, she has the height to post up opposing guards as well as the strength and quick release to get her shot on against bigger inside defenders. She credits the latter to years of pickup games against guys—including idol Magic Johnson—in and near her hometown of Chino, Calif. "When you're playing against guys, you can't go inside so much because they're going to punch your stuff,' says Taurasi. "That helped me develop a true jump shot, which most women don't have."
That Taurasi would choose this game to go off also speaks to her big-game mentality because, in women's basketball, there's no bigger game than Connecticut against Tennessee. The teams have combined for eight of the last 15 national championships and have faced off six times as the two top-ranked teams.
UConn's decisive victory not only put the Huskies in a class by themselves, but also established Taurasi as a leading candidate for player of the year. As she left the arena on Saturday night, it was obvious that even this coolest of customers couldn't help but get a little excited by the best rivalry in women's basketball. "Yeah, maybe I was a little more pumped for today," she conceded with a smile. "You see 25,000 people out there rooting against you—it's a great feeling."