Purdue 64

(29-6, 13-4 Big Ten)

Connecticut 73

(35-1, 16-0 Big East)

    7:00 PM ET, April 1, 2003

    University of Dayton Arena, Dayton, Ohio

    1 2 T
    PUR 22 4264
    CONN 41 3273

    UConn squanders big lead, but not victory

    DAYTON, Ohio (AP) -- Connecticut was inconsistent all season. The Huskies were inconsistent against Purdue. For UConn, that was still good enough to get back to the women's Final Four.

    Barbara Turner shares the joy of UConn's return to the Final Four.

    Diana Taurasi scored 21 points and the defending national champions held on after letting much of a 22-point slip away to beat Purdue 73-64 Tuesday night to win the East Regional.

    The frantic finish was no surprise for the Huskies (35-1), who are relying on players who had little or no previous experience, including three freshmen.

    "I think that's the way we've been playing all year, going up to a big lead and letting it go,'' UConn's Jessica Moore said. "I think it just shows how tough we are that we were able to hold out for that long and keep it.''

    The top-seeded Huskies are going to the Final Four for the fourth straight year, after what would have been a rebuilding season for any other school. They'll play Texas at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday. Texas beat LSU 78-60 in the West Regional final.

    After losing four starters from last season's unbeaten team, UConn now has a chance to win its third title in four years.

    "This year, there were just a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainties,'' Taurasi said. "To make it this far and for us to really come together, it was unbelievable, it really was.''

    Second-seeded Purdue (29-6) did not go quietly, however, and Connecticut had to make nine straight free throws -- five by Taurasi and four by Maria Conlon -- in the final 2:53 to keep the Boilermakers behind.

    "We just didn't want to go out. We wanted to put up a fight,'' said Shereka Wright, who led Purdue with 25 points. "We wanted to be remembered as a team that didn't back down from UConn. We challenged them. We had them rattled and that's something I'm very proud of.''

    Purdue, the 1999 national champion, bounced back from a wretched 19 percent first-half shooting effort to make the Huskies sweat after trailing 62-40 with less than nine minutes to play.

    Wright made two 3-pointers and converted a three-point play in a 17-2 run that drew the Boilermakers to 64-57 with 2:57 left. Purdue was making the shots it had been missing. Connecticut was missing the shots it had been making.

    Taurasi temporarily halted the momentum by making two free throws, but Purdue kept coming and twice got within six, the last time at 68-62 on Wright's basket with 1:08 to play. But Conlon made four straight free throws, Taurasi sank a final one and the Huskies were on their way to Atlanta.

    "That last two minutes, only D and Maria were going to touch that ball,'' Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "I don't care if they hadn't hit any shots the whole night, I knew they'd make the free throws.''

    Conlon and Moore each finished with 12 points for UConn, and Ann Strother scored 10. Mary Jo Noon had 10 for Purdue, but the Boilermakers' top player in the NCAA tournament, Erika Valek, had a forgettable night.

    Valek scored only eight points on 2-for-10 shooting. She had been averaging 22 points and shooting 55 percent in the tournament.

    "The bottom line was we couldn't make shots,'' Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. "It came down to shooting the basketball and we just did a poor job.''

    Though sloppy at times, UConn still shot 52 percent in building a 41-22 halftime lead. And oh, did the Huskies play defense, holding Purdue to three field goals in the first 14 minutes with harassing, in-your-face pressure.

    They deflected passes, intercepted passes and swarmed to the ball, giving Purdue few chances to get a decent look at the basket.

    From the outset, Purdue missed the first shot of a possession 17 straight times. The Boilermakers' first three baskets came on putbacks, and they finished the first half with more turnovers (seven) than field goals (six).

    "It was nothing that UConn did,'' Wright said. "We took our own selves out of it in the first half.''

    Purdue grabbed the early lead when Wright converted a three-point play 61 seconds into the game. It evaporated quickly.

    The Boilermakers went the next 6:55 without a point, missing 11 shots and turning it over three times. Connecticut, meanwhile, ran off 17 straight points -- eight by Taurasi -- and the Huskies seemed on their way to a rout.

    Battle's jumper finished a 7-0 run that made it 30-11, and she fed Willnett Crockett for a layup that gave UConn its 19-point halftime lead. Purdue continued to struggle after halftime, and when Moore made a jumper with 8:23 left, UConn led 62-40.

    That was the Huskies' final field goal, and they had to rely on their free throws to stay ahead.

    "When you play good teams like Purdue, they're not going to roll over and let you beat them by 40,'' Auriemma said. "They're too good for that. But that's been our season right there. Today was our season.''

    Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press



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