Outstanding balance pays off big for UConn

Updated: February 6, 2004, 7:24 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Thursday's version of Connecticut-Tennessee won't go in the collector's edition boxed set. It didn't have the entertainment value we expect from this matchup.

The officials contributed to that, as did some mediocre shooting as well as Tennessee's turnovers and general lack of offensive certainty.

The 45-foul fest probably left both teams, both staffs and all 22,515 fans in Thompson-Boling Arena hearing whistles in their heads long after the Huskies' 81-67 victory was over.

But the Huskies could do their own whistling after this one, their fifth consecutive win over Tennessee. And their 14-point margin could have made it uglier if UConn hadn't missed 11 free throws?

UConn made 10 of 23 3-pointers, which was critical. It's fair to assume that if Tennessee guard Loree Moore hadn't been injured -- she's out with a torn ACL in her left knee -- UConn might have not gotten quite as many good looks from outside. Moore's talent on defense helped her teammates be better defenders.

And Tennessee's offense lacked cohesion and good decision-making. The Huskies had their own problems in that regard a few times, but Diana Taurasi's play-making came through in the clutch. She was 4-for-13 from the field, but made key shots and passes at crucial times. Not that that's any surprise.

Ann Strother, who had a big game Saturday against St. John's, had 17 points and seven rebounds. She played well against the Lady Vols in the NCAA title game last season, too. Strother worked the boards, too, grabbing seven, while Barbara Turner and Jessica Moore notched nine and seven, respectively.

Afterward, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he was particularly happy because this game wasn't "The Taurasi Show" with the rest of the Huskies as second-bananas. Taurasi didn't have to do it all; this showed a team effort that both she and Auriemma love to see.

The Huskies looked throughout the game as if they were sure they would win. Tennessee never had that look.

Is this mostly because of Moore's absence? Certainly, that's a part of it. With Moore out and Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson graduated, who is Tennessee's court leader? Moore was the biggest source of confidence and aggression for Orange Nation on both ends of the court. What player or combination of players can adequately fill that role?

Tennessee still has time to figure all this out, but it's not going to be easy to do. The Lady Vols have South Carolina at home this Sunday, then are on the road for games at No. 14 Georgia and Vanderbilt.

Interesting how the carousel ride at No. 1 has turned out thus far. UConn lost at "home" (Hartford) to Duke; Duke lost at home to Tennessee; Tennessee lost at home to UConn.

The ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll also had Texas Tech ranked No. 1 for a while, which the media poll didn't. Tech has lost on the road at Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas.

Speaking of the Longhorns ... they also won at Tennessee, on Dec. 28, and beat Duke way back in November. Texas' losses are at Penn State and at Baylor. The Longhorns currently have the longest home-court winning streak at 31 games.

Texas plays at Oklahoma State on Saturday. If Texas wins there and UConn beats Miami on Sunday, voters will have to decide between the Longhorns and Huskies for the top spot.

If the media follows the general principles of "poll-ology" -- and doesn't forget Texas' victory at Tennessee -- I think the Longhorns will be No. 1. Texas is now No. 3 and UConn No. 4 in AP's poll. They're switched in the coaches' poll, so UConn might move to No. 1 there.

Ultimately, the poll showings is ceremonial, but the jockeying for No. 1 is anything but. Penn State moved to 10-0 in the Big Ten with its victory over Indiana on Thursday and is in that mix, too.

A lot can happen in the stretch run for the next month and a half. For Tennessee, a lot needs to happen. Tennessee has to, as coach Pat Summitt said, ''learn to play at that level'' that it takes to beat a team like UConn.

Tennessee senior Ashley Robinson said afterward, ''Every time we play UConn, it seems like they rebound and play harder than us. ... We are going to work hard and fight hard to be the Tennessee team that everyone is used to.''

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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