Huskies finish perfect

Monday, April 1, 2002

SAN ANTONIO -- Not even an imperfect game could keep Connecticut from a perfect season.

Surviving an uncharacteristic rash of turnovers and poor outside shooting with strong inside play, the Huskies beat Oklahoma 82-70 Sunday night for their third national championship.

The frontcourt trio of Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams led the Huskies (39-0) to an overwhelming rebounding advantage -- and on this night, they sure needed it.

Connecticut won by big margins all season by wearing down opponents. Oklahoma (32-4) refused to let that happen.

Trailing by 16 early in the second half, Oklahoma got to within six with a little more than two minutes left. Things like that did not happen to the Huskies this season, but they responded.

But Diana Taurasi converted a key three-point play and player of the year Sue Bird wrapped it up with six straight free throws. With 18 seconds left, Bird was able to dribble out the clock and the Huskies had their title.

Connecticut committed 21 turnovers, two short of its season high, and was 0-for-9 on 3-point shots. All that did was force the Huskies to find another way to win it, and they did by overpowering the Sooners inside.

Cash was the strongest presence with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Jones had 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Williams finished with 23 points and nine rebounds.

Cash was selected the outstanding player in the Final Four.

Oh, and don't forget the guards. Bird had 14 points and four assists and made all eight of her free throws. Taurasi added 13 points and got the honor of heaving the ball into the stands when it was over.

Oklahoma showed its resiliency by making it a game after a poor start. All-American Stacey Dales led the Sooners with 18 points. Rosalind Ross scored 17 and LaNeishea Caufield had 14.

But the Sooners could not overcome their 39 percent shooting and Connecticut's 44-25 rebounding advantage.

Connecticut led by 12 at halftime and stretched the lead to 54-38 when Taurasi scored less than six minutes into the second half. A blowout looked imminent, but Oklahoma did not let it happen.

Dales and Ross each hit a 3-pointer, and the Sooners started to battle their way back.

Jamie Talbert's rebound basket cut the lead to 66-57 and it was 71-63 after Caton Hill's 3-pointer. And the Sooners kept coming, twice getting to within six, the last time on Dales' layup with 2:15 to play.

That was as close as it would get.

Taurasi muscled in a shot while drawing the fifth foul on Dales and sank the free throw to make it 76-67. Then Connecticut made sure that Bird handled the ball the rest of the way, Oklahoma had to foul her and, demonstrating the poise she had shown all season, scored the Huskies' final six points with her free throws.

As Bird dribbled out the clock, she and Taurasi slapped hands. Another championship was theirs.

Connecticut became the fourth team to go undefeated since women's basketball came under the NCAA in 1981 and was the first school to do it twice. The Huskies went 35-0 in winning their first title in 1995.

Tennessee's 1998 national champions were 39-0. Texas finished 34-0 in 1986.

UConn won its other title in 2000, when the Huskies were 36-1. Only Tennessee, with six, has more national championships than Connecticut.

The title topped off a remarkable ride for Connecticut's four seniors. Bird, Cash, Jones and Tamika Williams were 136-9 in their careers with three Final Four trips and two championships.

Oklahoma made the championship game in its first Final Four trip, capping a rapid rise to national prominence. It came only five years after the Sooners went 5-22 in Sherri Coale's first season as coach and 12 years after the university actually dropped the women's program for eight days before a national outcry forced it to reconsider.

The Sooners were confident going in because they had stayed with Connecticut for most of the game in an 86-72 loss at Hartford on Dec. 22. They had the players to match Connecticut's ultra-talented guards and had played solid defense in the NCAA tournament, holding opponents to 36.5 percent shooting.

But Oklahoma could not hold up to Connecticut's relentless inside pressure at both ends and became the Huskies' final victim in their march to perfection.

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