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And you thought last year's title run was good

4/16/2003

ATLANTA -- Last year, Connecticut did it with sheer power. This year, the Huskies did it with everything else.

Last year, UConn beat Oklahoma in the final with the three-headed rebounding monster of Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones. This year, the Huskies closed out an improbable championship season with a sharp-shooting collection of brave souls orbiting around a supernova.

They did it Tuesday night despite a 40 to 22 rebounding deficit, and they did it with all the guts that last year's team had but didn't always need.

They did it with Diana Taurasi, who went from youngster to team leader overnight. She put her team on her shoulders the way only great champions do. On Tuesday night she scored 28 points in a performance that was both head-spinning and completely normal.

They did it with players who watched most of last year's final from the bench: Jessica Moore with four huge rebounds and three even timelier assists; Ashley Battle with strength of will to match that amazing strength of body; and Maria Conlon with enviable calmness over nearly 40 minutes of game time and an 11-point performance of a career.

They did it with players who watched last year's final from home: Ann Strother with a beautiful shooting touch and 17 crucial points; Barbara Turner with key early shots and a 10-point contribution; and Willnett Crockett with "the best two games of her life," in the words of UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey.

They did it with coaching. Geno Auriemma lost four superstars to the WNBA and managed to get an inexperienced group to play like seniors. "Won't everyone be surprised when we make it to the Final Four?" he said before the season started, when most of his team didn't even know his triangle offense. Auriemma tempered his high expectations with patience, and his frustration with teaching. Even when Tennessee mounted a rally late in Tuesday's game, Auriemma called for the weave and his team ran it to perfection. The Lady Vols had no answer.

"The coach was our toughest opponent all season," Battle said. "He's a tough son-of-a-gun to beat."

They did it in the face of criticism: from those who picked them to lose early and often, from those who picked them to finish out of the top 10, from those who picked them not to make it to Atlanta, from those -- including this writer -- who picked them to falter once they got to Atlanta, and from those who thought Pat Summitt would draw on her team's depth to stop the UConn Express one stop short. (Auriemma still has not lost a final.) They did it in the face of critics who did not believe their work ethic could make up for the loss of talent.

"A reflection of all that is great in college basketball," Auriemma said after the game. "An unbelievable testament."

Indeed.

And now there is nothing left to prove. Auriemma can win any year with any team. Taurasi can win any game under any circumstances. And both -- along with a Class of '06 on a mission to win four rings -- will be favorites to do it all again next year in New Orleans.

"To all the doubters," Turner said, "it's real."

Last year was beyond doubt. This year was beyond belief.

Last year was perfect. This year was better.

Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.