SAN ANTONIO - Early in the second half of last night's national semifinal, Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt issued a plaintive cry to the officials in a voice that could be heard through the din of the Alamodome. "They don't need any help," Summitt said, referring to the Lady Vols' opponent, top-ranked Connecticut.
A crowd of 29,619 - the second largest to see a women's basketball game in the United States - saw the Huskies (38-0) thoroughly dismantle Tennessee in much the way they have taken apart the opposition this season.
Already leading by 13 at the half, Connecticut opened the second half with a 24-11 run that made the outcome rather inevitable, as it has been for most of the season: The Huskies have beaten opponents by nearly 37 points a game.
"When you come into a game like this, you really don't know what to expect," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "All day long, I was just preparing myself to anything that could happen. The way we played on the defensive end, and the way we took the game to a very good team was impressive."
Connecticut senior point guard Sue Bird, the national Player of the Year, and forward Asjha Jones led all scorers with 18 points each, and Jones chipped in 10 rebounds. Sophomore guard Diana Taurasi, a Kodak All-American, had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
The Lady Vols shot a paltry 31 percent from the field and were led in scoring by junior guard Kara Lawson and Courtney McDaniel with nine points apiece.
The win was reminiscent of the 71-52 pasting the Huskies laid on Tennessee in the 2000 championship game, as Connecticut continues to make its push to become the fourth team in NCAA women's history to complete a season unbeaten and the second squad in school history to do so in seven years.
And, the Huskies have widened the gap between themselves and Tennessee (29-5) in what has become the game's marquee rivalry, beating the Lady Vols in four of the past five meetings by an average of just over 15 points. Last night's game was never in doubt, as the Huskies took an early lead and never looked back.
"We were never as competitive as I anticipated we would be," said Summitt. "You've got to give Connecticut credit. They outplayed us in every position. We got whipped in every category. It's all about players making plays and they knocked down shots."
The Huskies, who spent most of the season ranked atop the polls, have the nation's best record over the past seven years but only two national championships to show for it.
"I've said since Selection Sunday that I don't think anybody has shipped the trophy to Storrs yet," said Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, after the Sooners' win over Duke in the first semifinal. "If it's all right with the rest of you guys, we're going to go ahead and play and see what happens, so we'll be there Sunday night."
The Sooners, who lost, 86-72, to Connecticut in December, will have to bring their full faculties, however, to challenge a team making a case to be declared the best ever in women's collegiate history.
"We've worked really hard all year and we're kind of focused at the end," said Bird. "I feel really good on where we are right now." The Huskies, who had been denied twice in the past six years by Tennessee teams on seemingly inevitable marches to championships, worked with the memory of last year's Final Four collapse to Notre Dame, in which they surrendered a 15-point second-half lead to the Fighting Irish and lost, 90-75.
"Coming into the game, we brought up Notre Dame," said senior forward Swin Cash, who had 13 points. "We came out ready to play. We were focused for the first five minutes and we were right where we wanted to be."
And that means playing for a national championship.
TENNESSEE - G.Jackson 2-3 0-0 4, B.Jackson 2-11 3-4 8, Snow 2-7 2-2 6, Lawson 4-13 1-2 9, McDivitt 0-4 0-0 0, L.Moore 3-5 0-0 7, Ely 3-6 0-1 6, Butts 2-8 2-2 7, McDaniel 4-8 1-2 9, Munoz 0-2 0-2 0, Robinson 0-2 0-0 0, Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Pillow 0-0 0-0 0, Canon 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-70 9-15 56. CONNECTICUT- Cash 4-10 5-7 13, Williams 2-4 4-5 8, Jones 8-17 2-2 18, Taurasi 7-16 0-1 17, Bird 7-15 0-0 18, J.Moore 1-1 1-4 3, Conlon 0-1 0-0 0, Battle 0-1 2-2 2, A.Valley 0-0 0-0 0, Marron 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-65 14-21 79. Half -Connecticut, 38-25. 3-point goals-Tennessee 3-14 (L.Moore 1-1, Butts 1-4, B.Jackson 1-6, McDivitt 0-1, Lawson 0-2), Connecticut 7-17 (Bird 4-8, Taurasi 3-7, Cash 0-1, Conlon 0-1). Fouled out-None. Rebounds-Tennessee 48 (Snow 8), Connecticut 44 (Jones, Taurasi 10). Assists-Tennessee 9 (B.Jackson, McDivitt, L.Moore 2), Connecticut 19 (Bird, Cash, Taurasi 5). Total fouls-Tennessee 21, Connecticut 12. A-29,619
Women's Final 4
At Alamodome, San Antonio Yesterday's semifinals
Oklahoma 86, Duke 71
UConn 79, Tennessee 56 Tomorrow's championship
Oklahoma (32-3) vs. Connecticut (38-0), 7:30 p.m., ESPN