For a week before and immediately after Sunday's UConn- Tennessee women's basketball game, those involved insisted that, in the sweeping scheme of things, it meant nothing. The real games, they said, are played in the NCAA Tournament come March.

Could have fooled the 10,027 at Gampel Pavilion and the millions presumably watching at home on CBS -- many affiliates didn't pick up the national feed until late in the first half. For 40 minutes of gut- wrenching, head-butting play, No. 1- ranked UConn and No. 2 Tennessee went at each other like there was a national title on the line.

Tennessee prevailed 92-81, ending the Huskies' 54-game home winning streak. But the final score did not begin to reflect the energy expended, the full-court commitment made by both teams. With the score tied at 76 late in the game, the Lady Vols scored 12 unanswered points.

If this game didn't mean anything, why did UConn guard Shea Ralph look like she had been crying when she met the press afterward? Was it because in her 45th career college game, she lost for the first time?

``I don't like losing,'' said a red-eyed Ralph, who sat out last season following knee surgery. ``I hate it. I hate losing at cards. I'm going to treat this as a learning experience.''

If this was meaningless, why were Tennessee guard Semeka Randall and UConn forward Svetlana Abrosimova wrapped around the ball, rolling around on the court midway through the first half?

``One of you has to be mentally tougher,'' Randall explained. ``We tied up the ball. I didn't want to give up the ball. She didn't want to give up the ball. And, hey, I guess it was a [World Wrestling Federation] match, huh?''

The entire experience had the air of a championship fight. Consider:

Hot tickets -- Reports of scalpers' getting $200 for a $12 ticket were greatly exaggerated. The best those in front of Gampel Pavilion could get was $200 for a pair of well- placed, center-court seats. Most of the others were going for $50 or $75 each.

Some scalpers whined about the cramped venue and complained that CBS, which vacillated during scheduling, and UConn should have insisted the game be played at the Civic Center, where there are roughly 6,000 more seats.

``How are we supposed to make a living here?'' asked one scalper.

Faces in the crowd -- Sure, Sunday's game enjoyed the best concentration of women's college basketball talent in the country, maybe ever. If you factor in the ability of some of the spectators, it was almost a ridiculous agglomeration of talent.

Three members of the U.S. 1996 gold medal-winning women's basketball team were on hand: Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley.

Lobo, the former UConn star and Most Outstanding Player of the 1995 Final Four when UConn beat Tennessee for its only national title, knew why the Huskies lost.

``It was a matter of rebounding, rebounding, rebounding,'' said Lobo, who plays for the New York Liberty of the WNBA. ``Halfway through the first half, I heard Coach [Geno] Auriemma say, `Have we got one big rebound?'

``I mean, UConn got destroyed on the boards. The two teams were like mirrors, pressing, breaking the press and making layups. The difference was Tennessee got all the rebounds.''

The Lady Vols racked up 47 rebounds, to UConn's 32.

The voice -- Renowned boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer was booked for the pregame introductions for a tidy fee of $5,000 (your tax dollars at work?). The tuxedoed Buffer makes a nice living traveling the country with his signature ``Let's get ready to rumble!''

Sunday afternoon, he loosed a customized baritone ``Let's get ready for rounnnnndddddballllll!'' It was the climax of a 155-second stint. That worked out to $32.26 per second.