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By Eric Adelson
ESPN Magazine
 

NEW ORLEANS -- Same 'ship, different year.

And what did you expect? The women's college basketball title game is sports' version of Groundhog Day. Every Selection Sunday brings the thought (and for some Scrooges, the hope) that maybe this time Connecticut and Tennessee will fail to win their regions. And every year, it seems, the sport's two dynasties clash again for the ring.

Every year it's impossible for anyone to stop Connecticut's star, Diana Taurasi. And every year it's impossible to stop Tennessee's two stars, smoke and mirrors.

Let's be fair. It's more like defense and rebounding. In Sunday's first national semifinal, LSU creamed the Lady Vols in every aspect of the game except, well, defense and rebounding. Points in the paint? LSU won 38-20. (Add fast break points to make it 44-20.) For most of the game, it sure looked like the Lady Tigers would prevent the Ali-Frazier rematch in the final. Then, Lady Vols guard Tasha Butts missed what should have been a game-ending shot, and left six seconds on the clock for LSU spitfire Temeka Johnson.

Was this it? The stunning end to Tennessee's season?

Tye'sha Fluker
Tye'sha Fluker and Tennessee's in-your-face style of defense helped eliminate LSU.
Nope. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt drew up an ingenius defensive play, double-teaming Johnson and putting tall timber Ashley Robinson on sleepy-eyed star Seimone Augustus. Lo and behold, Johnson ran right into Robinson, lost the ball and watched helplessly as Shyra Ely fed LaToya Davis for the winning two. The final flurry was highly improbable, but only if you don't know Summitt. This was actually the third time this season Davis had a defensive hand in a game-saving play. She also helped suffocate potential game-winning shots in the regular season against Stanford and in the Sweet 16 against Baylor. The stunning loss in the SEC tourney to Georgia was the only time all year when the Lady Vols didn't come up with a clutch stop. It wouldn't happen again on this stage.

Summitt called her team's last three nail-biters -- against Baylor, Stanford and LSU -- the toughest games of the 101 she has coached in the tourney. At the end of Sunday night's tilt, she looked incredulously toward press row and turned her palms up like Michael Jordan after his 3-spree against the Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals.

But come on. What did you expect?

And in the nightcap, when Minnesota closed an 11-point deficit to two with 12 minutes to go on a Janel McCarville lay-in, fans in the New Orleans Arena raised their eyebrows as well as their voices. Taurasi had fallen silent after a 12-point flourish in the game's first 12 minutes. Minny had wind, momentum and the crowd.

Was this it? The stunning end to Connecticut's season?

Nope. Just another setup for the inevitable -- which came only seconds later when Taurasi drained a dagger 3 from the top of the key. The Gophers had plenty of chances from there on in, but never tied the score.

Geno Auriemma called the win as gratifying as any he has had at Connecticut. A sincere and fitting tribute, to be sure. Minnesota had all the gumption and self-belief that Oklahoma brought to the 2001 title game. Whalen was as dangerous and inspiring Sunday night as Stacey Dales was two years ago.

But come on. What did you expect?

UConn or Tennessee?
Huskies or Lady Vols? Pat or Geno? Who will cut down the nets? Cast your vote now!

This all feels like a Hulk Hogan match, with just enough drama to keep everybody interested until the expected-yet-somehow-satisfying ending. Some columnists might grumble about Yankees-Red Sox repetitiveness, but folks, this is great theater. "As long as I'm wearing a Connecticut jersey," Taurasi says, "I don't care what people think."

So poise and playmaking, meet defense and rebounding. Again. It'll be Connecticut's amazing offensive explosiveness against Tennessee's unshakeable defensive chemistry. It'll be flawless and worry-less guard play (fill in the blank: Jen Rizzotti, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi) along with strong and stable inside presence (Rebecca Lobo, Swin Cash, Willnett Crockett) against Tennessee's usual collection of stoppers and swipers.

"Davis will take the ball," explained LSU assistant Bob Starkey before watching it happen Sunday night. "Butts will take the perimeter shooter. The two post defenders are extremely agile. You'd like to take the post players away from the basket, but you can't do it against Tennessee. They'll play straight man, and then switch."

Geno's Triangle offense, meet Pat's Bermuda Triangle defense. Again.

At least this title game should be better than the Connecticut victories of 1995, 2000 and '03. The Lady Vols are playing "the best defense I can remember," according to Starkey. And now Taurasi will finish her deliciously dramatic career in the only appropriate way: playing for everything -- including, perhaps, an unbelievable Storrs double championship.

"This year," she says, "there's no tomorrow."

See you all championship Tuesday. Again.

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



EAST
1 Penn State
2 Connecticut
3 Houston
4 North Carolina
5 Notre Dame
6 Colorado
7 Auburn
8 Virginia Tech
9 Iowa
10 North Carolina State
11 UC Santa Barbara
12 Southwest Missouri State
13 Middle Tennessee
14 UW-Green Bay
15 Penn
16 Hampton
MIDEAST
1 Duke
2 Kansas State
3 Boston College
4 Texas Tech
5 Louisiana Tech
6 Ohio State
7 Minnesota
8 Old Dominion
9 Marquette
10 UCLA
11 West Virginia
12 Montana
13 Maine
14 Eastern Michigan
15 Valparaiso
16 Northwestern State
WEST
1 Texas
2 Purdue
3 Georgia
4 LSU
5 Miami
6 TCU
7 Villanova
8 Michigan State
9 Arizona
10 Mississippi
11 Temple
12 Maryland
13 Austin Peay
14 Liberty
15 St. Francis (Pa.)
16 Southern
MIDWEST
1 Tennessee
2 Vanderbilt
3 Oklahoma
4 Baylor
5 Florida
6 Stanford
7 Rutgers
8 George Washington
9 DePaul
10 Chattanooga
11 Missouri
12 New Mexico
13 Loyola Marymount
14 Marist
15 Lipscomb
16 Colgate