Saturday, April 3, 2004
Roster full of stars leads Lady Vols
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
NEW ORLEANS -- Tennessee's 15th appearance in the Final Four is kind of
mind-boggling ... because we don't think of it as mind-boggling.
If tennis guru Bud Collins wore his funny plaid pants every once in a while at Wimbledon, it would be like, "Why is he dressed like that?'' But because he does it every year, it's just, "That's what he does every year.''
And so this is what Tennessee does every year. Or atleast it seems like every year.
I'm not completely sure, but I think Tennessee now has more Final Fours than Liz Taylor and the Gabor sisters combined have had marriages.
There were three consecutive years -- from 1992-94 -- when Tennessee didn't go to the Final Four. That's the longest Orange-less stretch in Final Four history. In fact, it's the only period that could be called a "stretch.''
What's interesting about this season is that nobody picked Tennessee as the "best team'' back in November -- yet four months and a fallen starting point guard later, Rocky Top is challenging to have that distinction now, when it really matters.
With all the talk of this year's great senior class, you don't hear the names of Tasha Butts, Ashley Robinson or LaToya Davis. Yet, they're all starting for the team that was picked as the overall No. 1 seed by the selection committee.
Then, of course, there's Connecticut. The Huskies are in their fifth consecutive Final Four. I guess coach Geno Auriemma took that 1999 Sweet 16 loss to Iowa State pretty hard.
Yeah, it has been that long since UConn was denied a trip to the Final Four. And that was the last year without either UConn or Tennessee or both at the sport's marquee event. This the Huskies' eighth overall Final Four appearance.
So, do UConn and Tennessee care if they're seen as playing the role of "bad guys'' here in New Orleans? Not in the slightest. In fact, both programs rather enjoy it.
As well they should. It's everybody else's job to stop them from getting here. But each one did it despite having some trials this season.
UConn's Diana Taurasi has played with more pain than she has ever let on. And she and Auriemma had their little tiffs, which basically didn't mean anything but gave the media crew that follows UConn some semi-new material to work with.
Some have suggested that the Hartford Civic Center losses to Duke in January and to Boston College in the Big East tournament were really important, because otherwise the Huskies might have gotten complacent or something. I seriously doubt that. They didn't seem to have any trouble staying focused while going undefeated in 2002.
They might not be invincible the way they were that year, but you don't have to be "invincible" to win a national championship. You just have to be extremely good and not trip when it matters most.
Tennessee fits that bill, too. This isn't a so-called "star'' team, and yet you watch the key rebounds and putbacks that Shyra Ely gets, or the defensive stops of Robinson, or how Butts and Davis seem to make the "back-breaker plays'' or how Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson hit from outside just around the time the momentum might turn against Tennessee ... and you realize that "star'' maybe just has to be redefined when discussing this group.
I don't know if there's one defining characteristic of the Tennessee-UConn teams that have been so good for so long now. But if there is one, I'll say it's execution.
Which sounds boring and dull and basic, but it's how you win even when you're not necessarily playing your best and/or your opponent is really challenging you.
Talent, obviously, has had a lot do with this success, too. But talent combined with system and confidence -- the latter two being the hallmark of excellent coaching -- have made these two programs very hard to topple.
It's not that some other teams haven't given it a good shot over the past several years. A few actually have been successful. Yet sometimes even a "great shot'' doesn't do it. That's how good these two teams have been.
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.