PHILADELPHIA -- From their respective perches atop the world of women's college basketball, the Connecticut and Tennessee programs have circled each other warily throughout the season, keeping an eye on what the other was doing, on the theory that their paths would cross for big stakes late in the season.
The season doesn't go any longer than tonight, and the stakes don't get any bigger than the national championship game between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, played in front of a sellout crowd at the First Union Center here and a nationally televised audience.
"I just think it's what a lot of people want to see. It's what all you guys [the media] want to see. It's what the fans want to see. It's what television loves," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
Tonight's contest between the top-ranked Huskies (35-1) and the No. 2 Lady Vols (33-3) is potentially the most important game in the history of the still-growing sport, with its two most visible teams showcased with a title on the line, a kind of distaff version of the 1979 men's final between Michigan State and Indiana State.
"The game has been looking for events that kind of define the game," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "I think it's one of those events that come along at the right place, the right time, the right teams, that you're going to look back and you say that was an event that moves the game forward. I think after [tonight], the game will be changed because of where it is and who is playing and the kind of game that it's going to be."
What viewers are likely to see are two teams, each with a pair of versatile junior All-Americans, and talent throughout their lineups, going at each other for the third time this season, after beating each other on the road.
The Huskies, who have a 25-1 record against Top 25 opposition, are deep and talented; 10 players average as many as 10 minutes a game.
"I'm not sure there's any team in the SEC we can look to compare to the type of depth that they have, but they are just a tremendous team with tremendous players, one through 10," said Tennessee point guard Kara Lawson.
Connecticut, which beat Tennessee in 1995 for the title, has blitzed the NCAA tournament field, averaging 95.2 points in its five tournament games, while its bench is outscoring the opponents' reserves, 183-69.
The Connecticut constants throughout the season have been its junior All-Americas, 6-foot Shea Ralph and 6-2 Svetlana Abrosimova.
The two can play in the backcourt or up front. Ralph is first in scoring and assists. Abrosimova, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, although second in scoring and third in assists this season, has drawn Auriemma's fire throughout her career for inconsistent play.
"She's improved in so many areas as a player, but I think she will be the first to tell you that she's not anywhere near where she's going to be four or five years down the road," said Auriemma.
Meanwhile, the Lady Vols, who have won three of the past four championships and are making their fifth title-game appearance in the past six years, struggled early in the season, losing at home to Connecticut and getting trounced by 27 by Georgia three games later.
The Georgia loss was their worst to an SEC opponent and started a self-evaluation that has turned into a 20-game winning streak, including the one-point win over the Huskies in Storrs in early February.
"A lot of people on our team were starting to feel sorry for themselves, wondering if we were that good," said Tennessee guard Semeka Randall. "It [the Connecticut game] helped us out tremendously to know that we could keep pushing and we could get better and better. It started a daily improvement, and that's why we're here today."
Indeed, Randall, a 5-10 guard-forward, and 6-1 forward Tamika Catchings, who, like Randall, is a junior, have had to adjust to becoming team leaders in the post-Chamique Holdsclaw era, and while they were slow to adapt, both have responded.
Catchings, the consensus National Player of the Year, has had her offensive struggles throughout the tournament, scoring two points in the first half Friday night in the win over Rutgers. But she has made up for it on the the boards, averaging 11 rebounds.
"If you were to tell me I'm going to coach players the rest of my career that would play that hard, I tell you I'd be happy coaching for a long, long time," said Auriemma.
However, the game is likelyto be decided by the point guards -- both are relatively inexperienced but talented leaders.
Connecticut sophomore Sue Bird, who missed most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, has been brilliant for most of the season, scoring 19 in the Huskies' 22-point win over Penn State in Friday's semifinal, and 25 in the win over Tennessee in Knoxville. The Lady Vols are likely to open with junior Kristen Clement dogging Bird, though Randall and junior reserve Kyra Elzy will probably get some time guarding her, as well.
Bird's Tennessee counterpart, freshman Kara Lawson, has been equally impressive since shifting to the point after the Georgia loss, scoring 19 Friday against Rutgers. Because of Lawson's stocky build, Bird is likely to have help guarding her, probably from Ralph.
"Sue and Kara Lawson are not really point guards. They are just guards. They just play the game the way old-fashioned guards used to play," said Auriemma. "They pass, they shoot, they do all kinds of things. It's not what your nouveau point guard does, just come down and run the offense."
Women's NCAA tournament
Tennessee 64, Rutgers 54
Connecticut 89, Penn State 67
Today's title games
Tennessee (33-3) vs. Connecticut (35-1), 9p.m., ESPN