The UConn Huskies do not rebuild. They repeat.
A season marked by sweeping change, a record winning streak and a sublime six-game performance by the sport's premier performer ended in ultimate glory Tuesday night.
UConn is national champion again. The Huskies defeated Tennessee 73-68 at the Georgia Dome to win back-to-back titles for the first time in school history and defy the skeptics who believed, right up until the final night, that this was the season they would be denied.
``To beat Tennessee and to win the national championship with this group is truly one of the more remarkable things that has ever happened,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``Maybe they are a lot better than I thought. Maybe they're tired of listening to, `We're too young and inexperienced.' But we're tough enough. We really are.''
The victory sends another powerful message to the rest of the women's basketball world. With three titles in four seasons, and the entire roster returning next year, a dynasty is rising from the rolling hills of Storrs.
``I think we know we have a premier program here, and that we expect great things out of each other whenever we put on the uniform,'' said Maria Conlon, the junior guard from Derby who ran the point masterfully and finished with 11 points, six assists and no turnovers. ``We're just another team that represents the greatness of Connecticut basketball.''
Diana Taurasi, who hoisted this novice team on her aching back and carried it through the NCAA Tournament on one good ankle, did what she seemed pre-destined to do, scoring 28 points to turn away the Lady Vols again.
Taurasi, the consensus national player of the year, finished the tournament with 157 points, third-most in Division I history, and had 54 in the Final Four, fourth all-time. She was an obvious choice for Final Four most outstanding player.
``Oh man, it feels good,'' Taurasi said. ``I just wanted to do everything I could for my team. It was unbelievable just to be in the championship game. To be in it and play well and come out with a win just feels really good.''
Freshman guard Ann Strother, who struggled all postseason long, had 17 points, including two free throws with 20.4 seconds left that sealed the title.
UConn led 58-52 with 9:10 left when Taurasi returned after her only rest of the night. She scored UConn's next nine points to make it 67-54 with 6:11 left.
But Kara Lawson, Tennessee's senior guard, scored seven straight to make it 67-61 with 4:05 left. Ashley Robinson was fouled with 2:39 left and made the first of two free throws to cut the lead to five. She missed the second, and Shanna Zolman rebounded for Tennessee, but Conlon stole the ball and Strother scored on a baseline drive to make it 69-62 with 2:08 left.
UConn led 70-63 with 1:03 left when Brittany Jackson banked in a three-pointer while falling forward. Auriemma screamed that Jackson was inside the line, and just as the officials went to check the replay, the scoreboard malfunctioned. After a delay of about five minutes, the three-pointer stood and UConn led by just four.
The Huskies worked the clock and went to Taurasi, who missed from the foul line. But she got her own rebound with 36 seconds left, and Conlon was fouled with 29.1. She made 1 of 2 to give UConn a 71-66 lead.
Gwen Jackson, who had 15 points but only six in the second half, put back a missed Lawson three-pointer with 21 seconds left to make it 71-68.
Strother was fouled with 20.4 left, and made both for a 73-68 lead. Then Ashley Battle stole the inbounds pass and the Huskies ran out the clock, with Taurasi throwing the ball into a section of Tennessee fans at the buzzer.
The Huskies were a team in transition this season, going from 39-0 a year ago behind four All-American seniors to a team with four rookies and four equally unproven role players. For once, many believed the Huskies would be vulnerable, just like everybody else.
But UConn had Taurasi, with her uncommon talent, charisma and stubbornness, and the rest of the team grew into their roles faster than even Auriemma expected.
``You know, as much as we say we didn't believe it, coach would always ask at the beginning of the year, `What do you think D, can we?''' Taurasi said. ``I was like, `Don't worry. We'll be fine.' And, you know what, it all worked out.''
The Huskies endured their share of pains, growing and otherwise, but the anticipated losses never came. UConn won its first 31 games, setting a Division I record with 70 straight overall, before finally succumbing to Villanova in the Big East championship game on March 11.
That loss, at the end of monthlong slump, galvanized UConn's spirit. With Taurasi mentally and physically refreshed between the conference and NCAA tournaments, the Huskies played with renewed vigor, and showed heart in overcoming a nine-point, second-half deficit to rally past Texas in Sunday's semifinal.
``We just didn't want to go home,'' Conlon said. ``We just rallied around each other. It's amazing. It's the most amazing thing I've ever been associated with in my life.''
April 9, 2003: Win And Reign. UConn Wins Second Straight Title
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