Taurasi, Huskies aiming for third straight title
STORRS, Conn. -- Diana Taurasi would have trouble hiding even if she tried.
Connecticut's all-purpose All-American pops up on the big board at Huskies football games and the crowd reacts. Her picture is flashed across the screen at a WNBA game at the Mohegan Sun casino and suddenly fans forget about the teams they're watching and cheer the leader of the two-time defending national champs.
And then there was the time she was eating tacos on a street corner in Mexico. UConn fans found her there, too.
"There's no hiding, there really isn't,'' she said.
The California kid with jaw-dropping skills is finishing her career for coach Geno Auriemma. She's helped deliver two of the program's four national titles and earned loads of individual awards.
Last year, Taurasi was the only starter back from the 39-0 national championship squad and found a way to win on a team loaded with freshmen. The 6-foot guard did it by leading the Huskies in points (17.9), rebounds (6.1), assists (4.4) and blocks (1.2) and was named the national player of the year.
She scored 28 points in UConn's 73-68 win over Tennessee for the title last season and averaged 26.2 points in the NCAA Tournament.
"Little by little I feel like I've been here forever,'' she said. "Now I'm a senior and three really good years have gone by.''
It has also been three long years for opposing coaches.
"It seems like she has been there forever,'' Seton Hall coach Phyllis Mangina said. "When people have contributed from the time they are freshman, you just can't wait until they graduate.''
Pat Summitt is among those counting down Taurasi's final year. Her Tennessee Lady Vols have lost five of six games to UConn the past three years, including the 2003 title game and the 2002 national semifinal.
"She has been a fun player to watch when we weren't playing against her. Geno has several times been quoted as saying 'We have Taurasi. That's a difference.' And it's true,'' Summitt said. "One more year.''
Taurasi and her teammates made history last year by running up a 70-game win streak that began the season before. This year they have a chance to set another mark if they reach the Final Four.
"No other program has been to five straight Final Fours,'' Auriemma said. "If we win another national championship this year, Diana Taurasi is arguably the greatest college basketball player of all time.''
Her supporting cast won't be nearly as green. Backcourt mate Maria Conlon is a senior and emerged as a steady starter for UConn last year. Redshirt junior Jessica Moore, a 6-3 center, is a dominating post player, and forward Ashley Battle has become a defensive spark for the Huskies.
Barbara Turner, Ann Strother and Willnett Crockett, last year's freshmen, had to grow up in a hurry during the championship campaign.
"I think in their own minds, from the start of preseason, they always said to themselves, 'We're going to win the national championship,' '' Auriemma said. "And that's probably a credit to Diana and her mentality.''
She played hurt a lot last season with a chronically sore ankle and back and has had offseason ankle surgery. Auriemma said Taurasi hates to take it easy to heal.
"She wants to play every day. She doesn't want to miss a day of conditioning because she thinks, 'I'm the captain. I've got to be out there,' '' Auriemma said. "She's working harder than ever before on the rehab, which she didn't do last year.''
That's just what opponents don't want to hear -- a healthy Taurasi back for her senior year.
"She's got that ice in her veins,'' said Alana Beard, Duke's two-time All-American guard. "She can shoot the outside shot, she can take it to the hole; but I think her most important attribute is getting her teammates involved.''
When they need her most, they always find her. So do the cameras, and the autograph-seekers. She handles it all in stride with a big grin and a wink. But below the surface, her coach suggests, she really might not be as comfortable in the spotlight as she appears.
"She hides it so well. She could be a basket case inside and you would never see it,'' Auriemma said. "Last year the strain of being the only voice and the only one on the court you could count on, I think, got to her.''
Taurasi admits that at times the constant attention wears on her. She'll manage a smile, anyway.
"Some days you're in a bad mood,'' she said. "But I guess it's good because it keeps me alive, it keeps me cheerful.''
The scrutiny won't ease up at all this year during her farewell tour, and Auriemma hopes to take a little of the pressure off her by limiting her media exposure.
"She's got unnatural abilities, but we don't want to make it even worse by saying your whole life is going to be spent going to school, going to practice and then talking to the media,'' he said.
Even so, Auriemma understands the interest.
"You won't see this again for a long time -- if ever.''
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press