NEW ORLEANS - It's been said in boxing that to wrest a crown away from the champion, the challenger has to apply a knockout punch. A game, very gritty Minnesota women's basketball team applied jab after jab to two-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut last night in the NCAA tournament semifinals, but ultimately the Huskies slipped off the ropes into tomorrow's national title game with a 67-58 win.
The Huskies (30-4) were poked and prodded all over New Orleans Arena but answered every Minnesota challenge and never surrendered the lead, earning a chance to win the program's fifth national title in nine years, and giving the school a chance to capture both the men's and women's championship - unprecedented in NCAA history.
"This team has been like this the whole year," said Connecticut All-America guard Diana Taurasi. "People step up when they need to make plays. That's the confidence we have in each other. We can grind the game out like this where our defense and our rebounding kind of take us through the game, and the last two minutes make our free throws and make a couple of plays, and we won the game."
Taurasi, a three-time Kodak All-American, scored 18 points to lead the Huskies, who are seeking their third straight title and fourth in the past five years. They'll play Tennessee, which advanced to its 11th championship game with a 52-50 win over Louisiana State in the other semifinal.
The Golden Gophers (25-9), whose many fans drove more than 24 hours from the source of the Mississippi River to its mouth, nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Final Four history, staying with Connecticut throughout the second half.
"We made a great tournament run throughout the NCAA tournament," said Minnesota coach Pam Borton. "We showed that we belong here as a team and made a name for ourselves. It just wasn't our night on rebounds and getting some loose balls and just hitting that key shot that we needed."
Minnesota's All-America duo of center Janel McCarville and guard Lindsay Whalen combined for 29 points to push the heavily favored Huskies, but the two scored just one point in the final eight minutes.
The loss ended a remarkable run for the Gophers, who had beaten the top three seeds in the Mideast Regional to earn their first berth in the Final Four, three years after winning just eight games. The Minnesota upperclassmen had played for three different coaches in four years, including current Maryland coach Brenda Frese, who won national Coach of the Year honors in her only season in Minneapolis.
"It's been a great run," said Whalen. "For us seniors, we can definitely take pride in the fact that we hopefully left our mark here and have established Minnesota as a winning tradition and a great women's basketball program."
"I don't think at any point during the game they looked at us and said, 'This is Connecticut and we're Minnesota and we don't belong here.' And I really admire that about them," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.
The two teams traded runs and blows throughout the second half, as each time Huskies threatened to break it open, the Gophers responded with a run of their own, at one point whittling an 11-point deficit to two. McCarville scored six in the spurt to apply pressure to Connecticut.
Down the stretch, however, the Huskies closed the contest on a 9-3 run, punctuated when Taurasi blocked a three-point attempt from Shannon Schonrock with 20 seconds to go and dribbled out the clock.
"I can't put into words the admiration I feel for the kids from Minnesota and how well they played the game of basketball," said Auriemma. "Lindsay Whalen is as good a player as I've had the pleasure of coaching against. And Janel McCarville is just one of the toughest kids in America.
"To beat them is as gratifying as anything that we have ever done at the University of Connecticut."
Connecticut, which has not lost in four previous national championship games, will meet perennial nemesis Tennessee for a second straight year, and the fourth time overall in the title game.
Tennessee - which lost by 73-68 to UConn for last year's title - is the only school with three straight national championships, winning from 1996 to 98.
"For the most part, I would think that people would like someone else to be in the finals, but as long as I'm wearing the Connecticut jersey, I don't care what people think," said Taurasi. "We're going to be in the finals, so there's good and bad to everything."
At a glance
At New Orleans Arena
Tennessee 52, LSU 50
Connecticut 67, Minnesota 58 Tomorrow's championship
Tennessee (31-3) vs. UConn (30-4), 8:30 p.m., ESPN