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The darkest horse to arrive in New Orleans was Connecticut. On the surface, the semifinal matchup between Virginia coach Debbie Ryan and UConn's Geno Auriemma, who had assisted Ryan for four years, ran a neat parallel to the men's Final Four confrontation between North Carolina coach Dean Smith and his former aide, Roy Williams of Kansas. But the reunion in New Orleans had all the tranquillity of Saturday night on Bourbon Street. Shortly before Auriemma left Virginia for UConn in 1985, Ryan had a crisis of confidence. "It just didn't seem like I fit in the profession," she recalls. "It was a real crossroads in my life." NCAA executive director Dick Shultz, then the Virginia athletic director, did his best to encourage Ryan, and she also began seeing Bob Rotella, the team's sports psychologist.
Auriemma's exit helped Ryan arrive. Direct and driven—"The first time people see me," Auriemma says, "they don't like me, because they think I act like I know everything about everything"—Auriemma had pushed, prodded and occasionally overpowered Ryan. "I didn't have a philosophy of life then, and it used to drive Geno crazy because he did," she says. "It wasn't until he left that I developed a lot of my sense of myself."
Both parties realized a break was necessary. "The bottom line is I went to Virginia and did everything I could to help the program reach national prominence," Auriemma says. "[But] having me around while you're going through growing pains is no trip to the beach, believe me. And you can ask my wife that."
In six years at UConn, Auriemma has transformed the Huskies from Big East doormats to the conference's first-ever envoy to the Final Four. This season, he welded an assortment of odd parts into a powerhouse led by Kerry Bascom, a 6'1" center as capable of popping three-pointers as of posting down low. "We have a 5'11" power forward, a 6'1" center who shoots the three, and our entire team isn't afraid to put it up—no hesitation," Bascom says. "We're crazy."
The Cavaliers ignite their explosive offense with a ball-pressure defense that forced an average of 25 turnovers a game. Given the task of harassing Bascom was Tonya Cardoza, a lithe 5'10" senior who last year watched the Final Four in her Roxbury, Mass., living room while on academic suspension. Cardoza's dogged defense—"Every time I made a cut, she was right behind me," said Bascom—and her flashy open-court moves (12 first-half points) helped the Cavs open up a 34-24 spread at intermission. But Virginia lapsed into an all-too-democratic one-pass, one-shot system that overlooked Cardoza and allowed UConn to cut the lead to 55-53 with 26 seconds left.
Ultimately, the Huskies held the Cavs to 35.3% shooting, including a 3-for-16 game from Staley, who was hampered by leg cramps in the second half. But Cardoza sank four free throws down the stretch—her only second-half points—and then Staley stole the ball with seconds to go to seal a 61-55 victory for Virginia.
In the other semifinal, defending champion Stanford couldn't overcome its physical woes against Tennessee. Center Trisha Stevens had ruptured a tendon in her right knee during the first minute of a 73-47 victory over Washington in the West Regional semifinal on March 21. Stevens underwent surgery and wore an ankle-to-hip cast to New Orleans. Then, with four minutes to go before last Saturday's tip-off, another Stanford post player, leading scorer Julie Zeilstra, pulled a calf muscle during warmups. She was outfitted with bandages and ice and sat glumly on the end of the bench for the game.
The injuries left coach Tara VanDerveer with one experienced player down low, 6'3" sophomore Val Whiting, who, with an array of weak-side help, limited Charles to just two free throws in the first half. With All-America point guard Sonja Henning performing twisting double Lutzes in the teeth of the Tennessee D for 18 points and seven assists, the crippled Cardinal raced to a shocking 28-21 lead at intermission.
Summitt's halftime speech left her hoarse, though she managed to bellow to Charles: "Nobody in the country can stop you one-on-one!" Charles got the message, blasting for eight of the Lady Vols' first 13 points in the second half to trim the margin to 36-34. Stanford sagged while Tennessee soared. The Lady Vols outshot (53.3% to 38.5%) and outre-bounded (26 to 17) the Cardinal after halftime, and Charles finished with 18 points and nine rebounds in the 68-60 Tennessee win.
To ensure a national network audience for all three games over the weekend, the NCAA played its women's final less than 24 hours after the second semi. Staley wolfed down a cheeseburger and a baked potato on Saturday night and, as a precaution against leg cramps (of which she has a history), was scheduled to receive added nutrients intravenously. Instead, the Cavaliers merely had an assistant trainer standing by to massage Staley's legs if the cramps occurred. Perhaps sensing Staley's vulnerability, the 5'10", 160-pound Head repeatedly bulled past her early on. But Staley answered right back, either whirling in or dishing off for 10 of Virginia's first 18 points as the Cavs roared to a 10-point lead.