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Thursday, March 18, 2004
Updated: March 23, 12:53 PM ET
Don't rule out No. 3

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- It was, in retrospect, an inevitable collision.

Diana Taurasi
Diana Taurasi hopes to lead UConn to its third consecutive NCAA title.
No, not the sudden, sickening impact of Diana Taurasi's slamming into a screen set by Virginia Tech's Megan Finnerty in Connecticut's first Big East tournament game. No. The violent clash between Taurasi and the coach in whose fiery image she was created, Geno Auriemma.

While Auriemma was berating Taurasi for picking up her fourth foul with 7:37 left in a game that was becoming increasingly gnarly, something strange happened. Taurasi came right back at him. Fuming, he left his star on the bench, along with her four points, for the rest of the game.

"Dee has not been wrong in four years, and I'm just sick of it," Auriemma told reporters after the game. "You don't sit there and argue with me. Nobody argues with me on the bench. Jen [Rizzotti] never did. Nykesha [Sales] never did. Svetlana [Abrosimova] would never do that.

"Those guys knew they were wrong. This kid hasn't been wrong in four years and it's catching up to her. I'd rather lose than let kids get away with that."

When the first three questions in the postgame news conference went to Taurasi, Auriemma interrupted: "How about a question for somebody who actually got something done?"

Eleven days later, Auriemma has his Huskies gathered around him on the court at Gampel Pavilion three days before their NCAA Tournament opener. Taurasi is standing just off his left shoulder. Three hours after their public spat, Auriemma told Taurasi it was his fault, that he should have kept his anger between them. He said this over the dinner table at his house three hours after the game; Taurasi and her parents were the guest of the coach and his family.

It has been a tough season for Taurasi, and the turmoil started well before the Big East tournament.

Remember those joyous, exuberant shots she used to throw up from 3, 4, 5 feet behind the 3-point arc? This season they have been as rare as her full-court-press smile. The seismic senior year she imagined has been a daunting series of peaks and valleys.

"When you're a senior, you're always thinking ahead," Taurasi said Thursday. "You drive yourself crazy thinking about the team, thinking about how to get it where you want it to go. For a while there, I was driving myself crazy."

TERRIFIC TAURASI
Though Taurasi's stats have dipped over the last 13 games -- she's averaging 15.5 points on the season but just 11.6 in that span, with four single-digit scoring performances -- she is a better player today than she was at this point last season. Mentally, Taurasi is smarter, probably tougher and making even better decisions.

And no matter how she has played up to this point, expect Taurasi to raise her game to another level in the NCAA Tournament. She has done it in the past and will be terrific again this year. Taurasi has no trouble handling the spotlight -- and usually excels in it -- and is used to playing with pressure. Though she has, at times, struggled with her shot, she never lost her confidence, and that is what has always set her apart this time of year.

Like Sheryl Swoopes, Cheryl Miller and Chamique Holdsclaw before her, Taurasi is one of the best players to ever appear in the women's NCAA Tournament. She performed marvelously on the big stage.

Simply, Taurasi is going to be just fine in this tournament. And that means Connecticut, will, too. The fact that UConn didn't get a No. 1 seed means nothing. Nobody should be counting out the Huskies.

-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman

Click here for Lieberman's analysis on second-seeded UConn, and be sure to look over Taurasi's NCAA Tournament statistics.
The Huskies, the No. 2 seed in the East Region, are 26-4 after opening the NCAAs with a 91-55 victory over Pennsylvania to set up Tuesday's matchup Auburn at Bridgeport Arena at Harbor Yard (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). But this is the first time Connecticut has been a No. 2 seed in six years. This, after failing to reach the Big East tournament final for the first time since 1993.

After a swift start, the reigning national player of the year and the most outstanding player of last year's NCAA Tournament has suffered games in which she, incredibly, scored two, four, six and eight points. She was the odds-on favorite to repeat as the player of the year. But while she's still a finalist for the Naismith, Wooden and Wade Trophy awards -- as well as the prestigious multi-sport Sullivan Award, and even a berth on the U.S. Olympic team -- Duke's Alana Beard has far superior statistics and is already encroaching on Taurasi's marked territory.

The vague fumes of failure, unfair as they might be, linger in the corridors around Gampel Pavilion.

After winning two straight national titles, UConn was an obvious preseason choice to win a third. The first championship, featuring Swin Cash, Sue Bird and Taurasi in 2001-02, belonged to a WNBA all-star team. The second? Taurasi was the only star. She scored more points than anyone else in the 2002-03 tournament -- 157 -- fashioning one of the most single-handed efforts in the sport's history.

This one was supposed to be easier. The Huskies lost no player of consequence. With highly regarded sophomores Ann Strother, Barbara Turner and Willnett Crockett a year older, juniors Jessica Moore and Ashley Battle and senior Maria Conlon ready to assume leadership responsibility, surely Taurasi's load would prove to be lighter.

No one imagined the No. 3 on her chest would represent the most difficult national title of all. For Taurasi has struggled with the suffocating pressure of expectation, the deterioration of her body and, with it, her formerly irrepressible 3-point shot.

"People thought it would be easier than last year," said Taurasi who, at least early on, was one of them. "It's harder. Everybody wants to rip your heart out. People are getting a little tired of us, I think."

No one is more exhausted than Taurasi.

The weight of recent history has been considerable. Connecticut won 108 of 112 games in Taurasi's first three seasons: 32-3, 39-0 and 37-1. Even with this year's relatively horrifying 26-4 record -- it has been five seasons since UConn lost four games -- the total is a ludicrous 134-8, good for a .944 winning percentage. Furthermore, UConn is attempting to become the first team to reach five consecutive Final Fours. A national title would tie Tennessee's record of three straight, set during 1996-98.

"That's all external stuff," Auriemma said, shaking his head. "She's not online or reading the newspaper. I think pressure is self-inflicted. She's thinking, 'I created the Legend of Diana Taurasi, just by being myself. Now I have to be better than that.' "

Jennifer Rizzotti has walked in Taurasi's blue-and-white Nikes. She was a junior point guard when UConn broke through with its first NCAA title in 1995. She was a senior captain in 1996 when the dream of repeating died in the semifinals against Tennessee.

"Last year, no one expected it," said Rizzotti, now Hartford's head coach. "That was fun. Now, everybody's expecting things, and shots are not going down. I think Diana's more hurt than last year. It can't be as fun.

"I've got to believe she's more mentally tired than anything else."

A swift (but deceptive) start

Taurasi, a muscular 6-foot guard from Chino, Calif., began the season splendidly and UConn ran to a 9-0 start before running into Duke.

Connecticut seemed to have the Jan. 3 game well in hand, leading 64-50 with 3:53 remaining, but the Huskies froze in the national spotlight. With the score tied at 65, Taurasi drove and hit a short jumper to give UConn a 67-65 lead, but there were still nearly five second left on the clock. Duke's Jessica Foley drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer and Taurasi's team was, stunningly, prevented from setting the all-time NCAA record of 70 consecutive victories at home. Beard (21 points) outplayed Taurasi, who scored 16 points but shot 5-for-16 and committed five turnovers.

UConn meandered through the season, losing badly at Notre Dame (66-51 ten days later), but rallying to handle Tennessee impressively, 81-67, on Feb. 5. Taurasi only shot 4-for-13, but led her team with 18 points and, just as important, five assists. Strother (17 points), Turner (16) and Battle (11) all scored well and it looked like a turning point in the season. Taurasi, always a flashy and uncanny passer, seemed to particularly relish distributing the ball to her teammates and watching them score.

And so, as the Huskies settled into the stretch of their Big East schedule, Taurasi assumed the role of playmaker. While Auriemma was constantly on her to shoot the ball more often, Taurasi passed more and shot less. Was this the same player, who as a freshman shot the ball nearly as often as Bird in the NCAA Tournament? It is impossible to know if her increasingly errant shots caused her to pass more, or if passing more (and shooting less) led to the souring of her shot.

Diana Taurasi, Geno Auriemma
The combo of Diana Taurasi and Geno Auriemma has brought success to UConn.
Impossible, because Taurasi's not sure herself.

"I can't explain it," she said. "I just went through a stretch where I didn't have any rhythm. My shot just wasn't right. You try to compensate, get everyone involved."

Said Auriemma, "It was just her way of taking a mental break. There was this feeling that we didn't have to rely on her so much. And that was a good thing."

At the beginning of the season, two important school records were within her reach: Nykesha Sales' controversial point total of 2,178 and Rizzotti's 637 assists. Figuring, conservatively, for 35 games, Taurasi needed to average 16.9 points per game -- one point less than her junior average -- to break Sales' mark. This remains unlikely. After averaging 15.5 points per game entering the tournament, to break that record Taurasi would have to average 23.4 points even if UConn reaches the championship game. Rizzotti's record, on the other hand, is quite reachable. Taurasi needs 18 assists to break it. Wouldn't that be a startling legacy for the freshman who shot 1-for-15 in UConn's Final Four loss to Notre Dame?

Connecticut won 12 straight games heading into the Feb. 28 contest at Villanova. Although the Wildcats were the team that snapped UConn's NCAA Division I women's record of 70 consecutive wins in last year's Big East final, the Huskies were oddly laconic, losing 59-56. Taurasi, shooting 3-for-13 from the field (1-for-7 from 3-point territory), scored just eight points in a truly senior moment. That strained game against Virginia Tech in the Big East tournament quarterfinals telegraphed the painful loss to Boston College in the semifinals.

After averaging 20.8 points per game over the first nine games of the season, Taurasi averaged 10 fewer points in the final nine games. While she shot a scorching 60 percent from the field and 46 percent from behind the 3-point arc during that early stretch, her accuracy over the last nine games dipped to 37.2 and 32.7, respectively.

Said Auriemma, "This isn't like Lance Armstrong getting on his bike and working really hard and thinking, 'They can't beat me. They can't beat me.' There are so many more variables on a team. That's what makes it so hard."

It is not a coincidence that Taurasi's shot has waned along the same trajectory as her health.

On Jan. 31, after she took a forearm to her back against St. John's, Auriemma limited her to 12 minutes as a precaution. She scored two points. The blow apparently agitated an old injury -- a stress fracture of the L-4 vertebra -- and has caused her pain ever since. Eleven days later, another familiar problem surfaced. Stretching her right ankle before a game at Syracuse, Taurasi felt something pull. Although she had surgery during the offseason to repair bone spurs, the ankle is gimpy again.

"Physically? One hundred percent? I guess," Taurasi said, not sounding convinced. "You'll never be 100 percent. It's how you overcome those things that matters."

Taurasi says the chronic pain makes it difficult to sleep, to say nothing of playing games. She spends several hours a day in the trainer's room getting treatment on the back and ankle. It's tough enough for anyone to get around with just one of those injuries, but what happens when your livelihood involves sprinting around a screen, twisting, catching the ball, planting your feet and elevating before you let fly a shot?

"Most people don't understand how much pain she goes through," Conlon said. "She basically has a broken back and, basically, a broken ankle. There are times when she's running around a screen and I have the ball and I'm about to pass it to her and I just cringe. One tweak and she could be done."

The circumstances are ripe for Taurasi to put the ball up 13 to 20 times a game. Strother, who has a right ankle injury, is ailing, but the emerging post play of Moore should help keep defenses from cheating on the perimeter. With each game, Taurasi will leave her mark in the record book. After scoring 18 points against Penn, she now has 328 in the NCAA Tournament, an average of 18.2 points per game and fourth overall in tournament history. Who does she trail? Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw (479 points, 21.8 average) and Bridgette Gordon (388 points, 21.6) and USC's Cheryl Miller (333 points, 20.8).

"Records are made to be broken, right?" said Holdsclaw, who has just returned from Russia, where she was playing for a team in Samara, two hours outside of Moscow. "Hey, I don't put it past her. It's a feeling you get as a great player competing in the NCAA Tournament. Players like that instant gratification."

The question is this: Can Taurasi, after struggling with her shot and using it relatively sparingly, crank it up? Can she again carry this team all the way across the finish line?

Auriemma, who says Taurasi "has done more than any other player we've had here," insists the answer is yes.

"I think she'll be more aggressive," he said. "She understands that now is the time to impose herself on the game. I'll tell you something -- I like our chances.

"Look at her career. She came off the bench as a freshman, but she was the best player on the team -- you can ask Sue Bird. Sophomore year, she's part of maybe the best starting five of all time. Junior year, she's doing is all by herself. Senior year ... "

Somehow, Taurasi seems fresh. She looks ready. Her face, marked by a riot of freckles, wears a smile.

"There comes a time," she said, "when you have to will the team to go where you want it to go. It's simple: What's it going to take to win? What's it going to take?

"Thirty shots? Whatever it takes."

Conlon, her running mate at guard, seems surprised by the question.

"Ready?" she asks. "She's more ready than anyone in the nation thinks.

"It's tournament time. It's Diana time."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.