March 30, 2002

By CHUCK SCHOFFNER
AP Sports Writer

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - One by one, they've fallen, the mighty as well as the meek, all swept aside by the white and blue blur known as Connecticut.

Now, only Oklahoma, a program once on the verge of extinction, stands between Connecticut and a second perfect season.

Connecticut, unbeaten and for the most part unchallenged, will play the resurgent Sooners in the women's national championship game on Sunday night, a pairing that would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.

It's also a pairing that worries Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, despite his team's 38-0 record, despite how the Huskies overwhelmed Tennessee 79-56 in the semifinals Friday night.

"It kind of bothers me," Auriemma said. "Sherri Coale has them thinking they can beat us."

Coale is the intense, energetic coach who was hired out of Norman, Okla., High School six years ago to put some life into the Sooners. She has succeeded beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Oklahoma (32-3) reached the championship game for the first time with an 86-71 victory over Duke on Friday night.

In Coale's first season, Oklahoma went 5-22. Twelve years ago, administrators at the school announced they were dropping women's basketball, only to reinstate it after a public outcry.

"This is the moment we've all been waiting for - to get to the Final Four and now we're in the championship game," Oklahoma's Rosalind Ross said in the locker room. "When I came in here, I wanted to cry."

Connecticut has been through all of this before. The Huskies went 35-0 in winning the 1995 national title and won another championship in 2000 with a team that lost only once.

This bunch, though, is something else. The Huskies' blend of teamwork, slick passing, shooting and tough defense sets them apart. With a victory, they'll make their claim as the best women's team ever.

They certainly looked it Friday night. Tennessee has won six national titles and is the most successful program in the country. Against Connecticut, the Lady Vols were in over their heads.

"Just the way we took the game to a very good team, a very good team, I'm really, really proud of my team right now," Auriemma said. "They're a pretty special group and we played a pretty special kind of game."

Because of its dominance this season - UConn's average victory margin is nearly 37 points - the national championship was practically conceded to the Huskies when the NCAA tournament started.

Oklahoma, though, isn't conceding anything.

"I don't think anybody has shipped the trophy to Storrs yet," Coale said. "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."

Connecticut hit Tennessee (29-5) from every direction. Player of the year Sue Bird and Asjha Jones each scored 18 points, with Jones grabbing 10 rebounds and Bird adding five assists and four steals.

Diana Taurasi had 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Swin Cash had 13 points, five assists and four blocks. Connecticut blocked 10 shots in all and held Tennessee to 31 percent shooting.

"It was very shocking to see how we played," Tennessee's Loree Moore said. "We didn't get going into our rhythm and they took advantage of that. They just steamrolled."

No Tennessee player scored in double figures. Kara Lawson and Courtney McDaniel led the Lady Vols with nine points each.

Oklahoma broke Duke's 22-game winning streak by building a 14-point lead and then answering when the Blue Devils (31-4) made a run in the second half.

Out of synch and taking poor shots in the first half, Duke started getting the ball inside and drew to 64-62 when Alana Beard fed Michele Matyasovsky for a layup with 7:49 left.

Forward Caton Hill, usually overshadowed by the Sooners' perimeter players, countered with a 3-pointer just 11 seconds later, and the run was over. Oklahoma went on to outscore Duke 22-5 in building an 86-67 lead with less than two minutes to play.

"Hill put the dagger in us with that 3," Duke's Krista Gingrich said. "We didn't match up out of the break and she nailed it."

Ross led Oklahoma with a career-high 26 points, including four 3-pointers. Stacey Dales added 17 points, Hill scored 14 and LaNeishea Caufield 12.

"I knew the team would mostly focus on LaNeishea and Stacey," Ross said. "I took whatever came my way. They left me open a couple of times and I stuck in some baskets."

Oklahoma played well against Connecticut during the regular season, keeping it close most of the way before losing 86-72. Now the Sooners get a chance to see what they can do on a much bigger stage.

"It is going to be a tough game," Taurasi said. "It's going to be a lot different than tonight's game."