SAN ANTONIO -- Five years ago, Tennessee ended UConn's bid for a perfect season in the NCAA regional finals, and eight months later, the Huskies coaching staff secured the greatest recruiting class in school history.
Friday night at the Alamodome, that class of seniors and the rest of the Huskies brushed the Lady Vols aside with remarkable ease in the national semifinals on their own inexorable march to an undefeated season.
UConn will play Oklahoma for the championship Sunday night. The Huskies built a 32-point lead with seven minutes left and beat the Lady Vols 79-56 before 29,619, the largest crowd to see a women's collegiate game.
What they saw was the worst beating in the 15-game history of this bitter rivalry. The previous high also came on the Final Four stage, when UConn won by 19 in the 2000 championship game.
``The funny thing is, they never really backed down, we were just that good tonight,'' said Sue Bird, who continued her torrid pace in this tournament, scoring 18 points to give her 90 in the past four games. ``They never stopped playing. But that's when we play our best, when teams pressure us.''
UConn (38-0) executed its defensive game plan with devastating efficiency. UConn limited Tennessee to 31.4 percent shooting and didn't allow any of the Lady Vols to score in double figures. Kara Lawson and Courtney McDaniel each scored nine.
With 10:57 remaining, the Lady Vols had 36 points, and UConn led by 28.
``I looked up at one point, and they had like 36, and I thought, `Boy, I'll tell ya, to keep them at that number at that time ...,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``Everything has to go right. It starts with our inside guys having a pretty good understanding of what they're doing. When our guys are focused, it looks like that. And in a game of this magnitude, it has to be like that.''
Asjha Jones was once again the anchor. Jones had 18 points and 10 rebounds and again rendered Tennessee's 6-foot-5 Michelle Snow a non-factor, limiting her to six points. Jones had the same number of points as Tennessee's starting frontcourt.
``We did a great job scouting. We knew what every player wanted to do,'' Jones said. ``Everybody understood where to push people and where to not let people go. We just executed perfectly.''
On the perimeter, Diana Taurasi buried for good the memory of her 1-for-15 performance in last year's Final Four. The sophomore made 7 of 16 shots, including three three-pointers, and scored 17 to go with 10 rebounds and five assists.
``Whoo! What a thrill,'' said Taurasi, who makes her first appearance in an NCAA title game. ``I can't wait. We're all ready to go Sunday. This was a tremendous win over a great Tennessee team. We knew it was going to be intense, and we did what we needed to come out on top.''
Kara Lawson and Courtney McDaniel each had nine to lead Tennessee (29-5).
UConn is 40 minutes from completing the fourth perfect season by an NCAA women's team. The Huskies can join the 1998 Lady Vols as the only teams to go 39-0.
``One more game,'' Jones said. ``One more game. I want to win. I'm not thinking about [my career] being over. I'm just thinking about one more win.''
They will have to do it in a rematch with the Sooners (32-3), who beat Duke 86-71 in Friday's other semifinal. UConn beat Oklahoma 86-72 in a foul-filled game at the Civic Center on Dec. 22.
``We played them earlier in the year, and it was a really competitive game,'' Taurasi said. ``Stacey Dales and those guys are amazing. It's going to be a lot different than today's game.''
UConn bolted to a 20-9 lead with 10:46 left in the first half. Tennessee then made its biggest run, scoring six straight to cut UConn's lead to five. McDaniel scored inside and Shyra Ely made back-to-back baskets on an offensive rebound and a layup off a steal to make it 20-15 with 9:22 left.
Then the Huskies began pulling away.
As she has the entire tournament, Bird provided the spark, hitting a three from the wing to start the Huskies on a 14-4 run that gave them a 34-19 lead with 4:01 remaining.
Taurasi was also a big factor, hitting a pair of three-pointers, the second of which ended the run. After Lawson made 1 of 2 from the foul line, Taurasi hit a pull-up from 15 feet to kick the lead to 16. Taurasi and Bird each had 10 points, and Jones would soon join them, scoring inside on a Bird feed for a 38-23 lead inside the final minute
``We were not as competitive as I'd anticipated,'' said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who shared a long moment with Auriemma at the game's conclusion and went to the UConn locker room to congratulate the players. ``They executed so much better, and they knocked down shots. You've got to give Connecticut all the credit. They outplayed us at every position.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun