NEW ORLEANS - If it is true that Tennessee and Connecticut will always play each other in the NCAA women's basketball championship game, then it's becoming increasingly true that Connecticut will always beat Tennessee.
For the sixth straight time and, more importantly, the fourth time in a final, the Huskies turned back the Lady Vols last night, 70-61, to win their fifth national title, their third consecutive championship and the fourth in the past five years.
The win gave Connecticut an unprecedented Division I double - championships for both the men's and women's team.
All-America guard Diana Taurasi - who almost certainly will be the top overall pick in next week's WNBA draft - closed a stellar career with 17 points for the Huskies (31-4), and in the process was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for the second straight year. As the horn sounded, Taurasi punted the basketball into the crowd for emphasis.
"It's just so unbelievable, so mind-boggling," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said of the school winning both championships. "It really is an unbelievable accomplishment. I wanted Diana's career to end the right way, and I can't think of a better way to end it."
In contrast to recent games between the schools, Tennessee (31-4), which had won its three previous tournament games by two points each, gave the Huskies a fight, but ultimately failed under the weight of poor free-throw shooting and inopportune streaks from the field.
The Lady Vols, who had trailed by as many as 17 in the first half, whittled the Connecticut lead to three at the 14:33 mark after Tasha Butts sank two free throws, making the score 41-38. But after a television timeout, the Huskies ripped off seven straight points on three possessions, with Barbara Turner hitting a leaner and a shot on the baseline, then Taurasi hit a three-pointer from just in front of the Connecticut bench. Just that quickly, the Huskies' lead was back out to 10.
But Tennessee, which had dropped five straight to that point against Connecticut, came right back with five quick points of their own, with a layup by Ashley Robinson, a free throw from All-American Shyra Ely, who left the game early in the half with an ankle ailment, and two foul shots from Shanna Zolman.
A three-pointer from Brittany Jackson cut the deficit to two with 9:51 left, and after a miss, the Lady Vols had a chance to tie, but a pass for Butts at the basket fluttered off her hands. The Huskies paused for poise, then Jessica Moore, who scored the first eight points of the second half for Connecticut, and Ann Strother scored on layups.
The Huskies seized control with 3:01 left when Willnett Crockett converted a three-point play to take the lead to 62-55. The Lady Vols would never get closer.
"Tennessee is a great team," Taurasi said. "They were able to make their runs, but we showed a lot of composure. It is just the absolute best feeling in the world."
The Lady Vols opened with Butts guarding Taurasi. Butts was assigned Louisiana State All-American Seimone Augustus in Sunday's semifinals, and held to the tournament's leading scorer to a 7-for-21 night in Sunday's semifinals. Save for a 16-footer at the 16:19 mark last night, Butts kept the three-time All-American largely quiet in the early going.
But the rest of the Huskies made up for Taurasi's absence. After the first television timeout, forward Turner hit a three-pointer from the right wing with 14:50 left to stretch the Connecticut lead to 10-6. Ely scored on a layup on the next possession for Tennessee, but the Huskies began to heat up. Moore sank two free throws to start a 12-3 run, punctuated by three-pointers from Ashley Battle and Maria Conlon, the other senior in the Connecticut lineup besides Taurasi.
The Lady Vols went three minutes during the midpoint of the half without a basket and looked disoriented offensively, hoisting air balls on consecutive possessions. Meanwhile, the Connecticut offense was running crisply without Taurasi playing much of a role.
Still, the 6-foot from Chino, Calif., had to be accounted for, and she hit a three in the middle of an 11-1 run with 8:51 left. By the time Strother, who had 17 in both last year's national title game and the Huskies' 83-67 win in Knoxville in February, hit a three-pointer at the 6:28 mark, Connecticut had opened a 30-13 lead and was looking to blow the Lady Vols out of New Orleans Arena.
But Tennessee shook off the cobwebs and began to run its sets more patiently. Center Ashley Robinson, who missed three of four foul shots early in the half, hit a banker at the 6:08 mark to follow an Ely put-back. That marked only the second time in the half that the Lady Vols had scored on back-to-back possessions to that point.
Zolman's shooting began to take off. Her three-pointer with 1:34 to go cut Tennessee's deficit to 10 points (30-20) for the first time since the 10:10 mark. The Connecticut offense went into cold storage, going scoreless for the last 6:28 of the half, with Taurasi taking just one shot in that span.
Meanwhile, Robinson scored on a layup with 1:01 to go and Davis, one of Tennessee's four seniors, scored on a layup off a backdoor cut with 17 seconds remaining, and the Lady Vols went to the locker room with a measure of hope. They trailed by only 30-24 despite shooting 33 percent from the field.
However, the Lady Vols dominated on the rebounding end 22-13, including a whopping 11-1 on the offensive glass to outscore Connecticut 7-2 in second-chance points.