NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The buzzer sounded and Diana Taurasi smiled,
then slapped hands with teammate Ann Strother.
They could breathe a little easier, having just helped
Connecticut fight off a gutsy Minnesota team to keep the Huskies on
track for a third straight NCAA title.
And their opponent? None other than Tennessee -- again.
With aggressive rebounding and tenacious defense against
Minnesota stars Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville, Connecticut
beat the Gophers 67-58 in the semifinals Sunday night.
"They weren't going to give up," Taurasi said. "They made it
this far and they were going to fight and claw until the last
seconds. And they kept making big plays, big shots and fortunately,
we had the response every single time."
The victory keeps alive the possibility of the first
championship double for a school. UConn will play Georgia Tech for
the men's title Monday night.
And the women? Yet another showdown Tuesday night with the
six-time champion Lady Vols, their second straight meeting in the
finals and fourth since 1995. Connecticut won the three previous
times, including a 73-68 victory last year Atlanta.
Tennessee is the only school with three straight national
championships, winning from 1996-98.
"It never gets old," Connecticut's Jessica Moore said.
"UConn. Tennessee. It is women's basketball in a nutshell. We are
the most popular teams in the country, and I'm sure it will give
ESPN some good ratings."
Sunday night's game was worth watching, too -- two teams throwing
their best at each other for 40 minutes.
Taurasi led UConn (30-4) with 18 points despite making just six
of 17 shots. She also made the pass that led to one of the game's
biggest baskets, then punctuated the victory by swatting away
Shannon Schonrock's 3-point shot in the final seconds.
The Huskies recovered the ball and Taurasi dribbled out the
clock while the Minnesota players stood helpless and dejected as
the seconds ticked away.
"We didn't want our season to be over," McCarville said. "We
were going to go down fighting to the end."
Minnesota (25-9) made a remarkable tournament run after Whalen
returned from a broken right hand that sidelined her for the final
seven regular-season games.
The Gophers earned their first Final Four trip as the No. 7 seed
in the Mideast, knocking off the teams seeded first, second and
third to get to New Orleans and giving hundreds of crimson and
gold-clad fans an excuse to party on Bourbon Street.
But Connecticut plays at a different level in the NCAA
tournament, and the Gophers fell short of what would have been
their biggest upset. But they sure made it interesting.
Whalen, who plays like a windup toy that never runs down, and
McCarville kept the Gophers threatening. They'd cut the lead to two
or three, only to see UConn pull away. Then they'd creep close
again and Connecticut would open it back up.
"Lindsay Whalen is as good a player as I've had the pleasure of
playing against," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "And Janel
McCarville is one of the toughest kids in America. To beat them
today is as gratifying as anything that we have ever done."
Minnesota never did get the lead in the second half, but the
Gophers had their chances after Kelly Roysland scored on a baseline
drive to cut their deficit to 58-55 with 5:50 left.
However, they missed shots on three straight possessions and
Strother nailed a 3 from the left corner. Taurasi then came through
with her third and final assist.
She faked a shot at the top of the key and whipped the ball to
Willnett Crockett, who banked in a layup to make it 63-55 with 2:36
It was all but over after Taurasi and Ashley Battle each made
two free throws in the final minute. Taurasi finished it off with
"I think we showed we belong here as a team and made a name for
ourselves," Minnesota coach Pam Borton said. "It just wasn't our
night on rebounds and getting some loose balls and hitting that key
shot we needed."
Maria Conlon added 10 points for Connecticut and helped
frustrate Minnesota by tipping away passes and making herself a
general pest on defense.
Five other UConn players scored from six to nine points and the
Huskies came up with 12 offensive rebounds, which led to 17 points.
"This team has been like this the whole year -- people step up
when they need to make plays," Taurasi said. "That's the
confidence we have in each other. We don't have to have someone get
40 every night to win."
McCarville wasn't able to dominate the game the way she did in
the Gophers' run to the Final Four, but she was still tough to
handle, finishing with 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting. She also had
seven rebounds, four steals and three assists.
Connecticut was able to limit Whalen's shots -- she was 3-for-11
in scoring 11 points -- but she had seven assists and forced
defenders to chase her all over the floor. Jamie Broback scored 10
for the Gophers, who led only once.
That was when Whalen fed McCarville for a layup that made it
9-8, but the lead lasted just 29 seconds. Jessica Moore got a
bucket on a pass from Barbara Turner and the Huskies were off on a
10-0 run that put them ahead to stay.
But, as it turned out, not out of danger.
"We just battled back the whole game pretty much and you have
to give UConn credit," Whalen said. "When they came down and they
were up two and they got an offensive rebound and they got a score,
that's what championship teams do."