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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.''