The only things that went right in the Connecticut women's basketball season were the beginning and the end. At the start, the Huskies—defending champions, with the whole team back, including the incomparable Dians Taurasi—were everywhere assumed to be a lock again And at the curtain, yes, per expected, they did indeed appropriate their third straight title, ho-hum, beating archrival Tennessee for the sixth straight time, in the finale. In between, though, the Huskies were sometimes as screwed up as Hogan's Goat. � Nobody, including their renowned coach, Geno Auriemma, knew what to expect. "This team was kinda eerie," Auriemma explains, sort of. "It was like they said to me, 'Hey, Coach, could you just leave us alone till March?' And me, of course, being the Mister Rogers I am, said, 'Sure, no problem.' Really, that's almost the way it was."
It was instructive that, at the conclusion of the 70-61 victory over the gutsy Lady Vols on April 6, after Taurasi punted the ball into the New Orleans Arena ionosphere and embraced her coach, the first thing he said to her was, "Do you believe this?" And she answered, "This is unbelievable." Only then did he tell her, "I'm so happy for you, D."
Taurasi leaves behind quite a legacy. The guard-forward may well be the finest women's player ever in college basketball. Indisputably, though, she is the most famous women's player of the 21st century—and for a sport fighting for market share, that is more important. Taurasi didn't just give her college three straight championships; she gave her game a fresh face. Recognizing this, somebody now will hand her a very juicy sneaker contract. She's already off to try out for the U.S. Olympic team, and this Saturday the Phoenix Mercury will make her the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. Sure, it'll be a step down from UConn, the one place in the world where female basketball players are treated like divas at La Scala, but then, she'll reflect some glory onto the shaded pro sideshow. Taurasi came back East from Southern California ballyhooed as the girl who plays like a guy; she goes out as the woman men would love to play like.
She was not whole all season, working through back and ankle injuries. Still, Auriemma says, "psychologically, emotionally—every day having to be Diana—that was tougher. But then, that made it more rewarding for us all. It was like D was a lion who taught her kids to hunt, and they learned just in time."
The Huskies were not deep. Maria Conlon, Taurasi's classmate who, of all things, actually comes from Connecticut, was the only other ball handler. Ann Strother, from Colorado, on the wing; and Barbara Turner ( Ohio), Jessica Moore ( Alaska) and Willnett Crockett ( California) underneath, with the muscle; plus Ashley Battle ( Pennsylvania), providing defense and spark—each donated just enough to the enterprise. But at the end of the day, everybody pretty much knew what Auriemma, with his usual candor, observed, "D's either gonna win the game along the way or have a horrible night and we're gonna lose. Kinda simple, isn't it?"
Anyway, back to the fall, when the Huskies started out like their championship forebears, whipping up on everybody. Then, at home against Duke in January, they collapsed down the stretch—well, choked is the more apt word—blowing a 14-point lead in the last 3:53. Taurasi unraveled as badly as her mortal teammates. Then, 10 days later, Notre Dame routed UConn 66-51. Miraculously, the Huskies recovered, only to go through a relapse at the end of the season, losing to Villanova 59-56 and, nine days later, to Boston College 73-70 in the Big East tournament semifinals. As the NCAAs began, Auriemma was despairing, but his assistants assured him that something good had somehow kicked in with the BC disaster. "I didn't believe it," he says, "but my coaches were right: The team finally...got...it." His "goofy guys" breezed to UConn's fifth national title.
Four of those championship game wins have come against Tennessee, which is, of course, the nation's other premier women's program. The Lady Vols still lead with six titles. Their coach is the formidable Pat Summitt—Hepburn to Auriemma's Tracy—and it makes for better melodramatic conflict that everybody knows that Pat and Geno don't double-date down at the Dairy Queen. But however grudging, it's a mutual-admiration society, and whatever Auriemma whispered to Summitt after the final (he won't kiss and tell), it was not his usual Philly flippancy. "A lot of coaches don't know how to lose, which is why they never win," he says. "It says a lot about Pat that sometimes she's at her best when she loses. She is just a terrific coach." In any event, both of them know their positions are about to be reversed...again. Auriemma is losing his meal ticket, and Summitt has a monster freshman class coming in, featuring Candace Parker, the Mistress of Dunk (chart, right).
The UConn-Tennessee final drew a Nielsen rating of 4.3, which is pretty hot stuff for cable. The number was up 23% from last year, and even more significant, it represented the largest audience ever to watch a basketball game on ESPN. Yes, that's right: Never have so many eyes as watched the Huskies and Lady Vols lit on any men's game in the history of America's guy channel. By contrast, the men's championship—UConn versus Georgia Tech, played the night before the women's—hit a new prime-time Nielsen low of 11.0 on broadcast TV. The trend accelerated when the best male players began emigrating early to the NBA. Today, teams don't hang together and build a following.
Taurasi, though, stayed around for four years and became a presence—a star with a vehicle, her brand-name UConn team. And, of course, since Jim Calhoun's Huskies men's team had already won, the University of Connecticut last week hit the first daily double in hoops history. Basketball, it seems, has even helped UConn become a fashionable place to attend class. It used to be the humdrum public school, the great State of Yale's "cow college." (Who otherwise even knew that there were cows in Connecticut?) Now, admissions applications are soaring and SATs climbing.
Of course, some members of this smarty-pants new wave have turned out to be the same sorts of jackasses we've seen at other colleges recently—rioting on campus after their team wins (or loses) a big game. They did this on back-to-back nights in Storrs. It tarnished what was otherwise an extraordinary achievement by one fine university. But it can't diminish what Diana Taurasi and her trusty sidekicks accomplished. "We're like 12 sisters," Taurasi said after her triumph, and then contrasted her sport with the men's game. "Women are more of a team." She smiled. "That's why Geno likes coaching women."