March 31, 2002
GAME: No. 1 Oklahoma (31-3) vs. No. 1 Connecticut (38-0).
ROUND: National championship.
TIME: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. EST.
SITE: The Alamodome; San Antonio.
Few teams have presented a challenge to Connecticut this season.
One that did is all that stands between the Huskies and possibly the best season in the history of women's college basketball.
Seeking its third national championship in eight years, UConn tries to complete a perfect season against an Oklahoma team seeking its first title just 12 years after the program was nearly disbanded.
Three women's teams have completed undefeated seasons, including the Huskies in 1995 when they went 35-0, but Tennessee finished 39-0 in 1998 for the best record ever. Connecticut can match that mark by beating the Sooners.
However, Oklahoma did not go down quietly playing on UConn's home floor on Dec. 22. The Huskies were clinging to a five-point lead with under 10 minutes to play before pulling away for an 86-72 win - matching their second-lowest margin of victory this season.
"They carry a great deal of mystique," said Oklahoma guard Stacey Dales. "That's one of the driving forces behind how successful they are. Playing them there and playing well, that was in their kingdom. That was their domain.
"We're on a neutral site now. We feel pretty good about the opportunity that's presenting itself."
The Huskies, meanwhile, would further help their claim as the sport's greatest team ever by turning in another blowout, as they did in Saturday's national semifinal with a 79-56 win over archrival Tennessee.
However, not all the Huskies are concerned with the history they could be making.
"You know when that's going to matter?" senior forward Tamika Williams said. "When my kids are like 7, 8 years old and they're starting to play sports and I can tell them I was part of the best thing ever in women's basketball. That's when it will be history for me."
Regardless of the outcome, UConn will shatter the NCAA record for largest average margin of victory, having beaten its opponents this season by 36.4 points per game. Plus, many have called the Huskies' starting five the best of all-time, with four All-Americans and the other getting honorable mention.
"There's a certain style these kids have. There's a certain flair that they play the game with," said coach Geno Auriemma, whose Huskies won it all in 2000. "That's the kind of stuff I like. I like the way they play."
Auriemma's group is led by point guard Sue Bird, whose ball-handling, crisp passing and accurate shooting garnered her national player of the year honors. Bird and starting backcourt mate Diana Taurasi starred in the rout of Tennessee, combining for 35 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists.
Oklahoma boasts a pair of very talented guards as well - first-team All-American Dales and leading scorer LaNeisha Caufield. However, it was the other member of coach Sherri Coale's three-guard lineup that keyed the 86-71 win over Duke in the national semifinals on Saturday.
Senior Rosalind Ross, the team's fourth-leading scorer, came through with a career-high 26 points and 10 rebounds.
"This is the moment we've all been waiting for. To get to the Final Four and now we're in the championship game," Ross said.
That's a statement that few could have ever expected from an Oklahoma player.
The university announced during the Final Four in 1990 the women's program was going to be dropped, but public outcry led to school officials changing their minds eight days later.
Coale has turned around the Sooners since going 5-22 record in her first season with the team in 1996-97. This is already the best season in school history for Oklahoma, which had never finished with more than 28 wins, or fewer than seven losses.
However, while Coale's backcourt matches up favorably with UConn's guards, the Huskies appear to have a decided edge on the inside with a frontline that includes three 6-foot-2 seniors.
The standout from that trio Saturday against Tennessee was center Ashja Jones, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds. Swin Cash and Williams combined for another 21 points and 13 rebounds, while shutting down the Lady Vols' interior players.
Despite being huge underdogs, the Sooners refuse to listen to those that say UConn already wrapped up the national title by beating Tennessee.
"The championship game is Sunday night, and we're playing in it," Coale said.
"I don't think the championship trophy has been sent to Storrs. If it's all right with the rest of you guys, we're going to play for it."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Oklahoma - F Caton Hill (12.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg), F Jamie Talbert (7.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg), G Ross (11.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), G Caufield (17.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg), G Dales (16.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.0 apg). Connecticut - F Williams (10.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), F Cash (14.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg), C Jones (13.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg), G Bird (14.4 ppg, 6.0 apg), G Taurasi (14.5 ppg, 5.4 apg).
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Oklahoma - Automatic bid, Big 12 tournament champion; defeated No. 16 Hartford 84-52, first round; defeated No. 9 Villanova 66-53, second round; defeated No. 4 Texas Tech 72-62, regional semifinal; defeated Colorado 94-60, regional final; defeated No. 1 Duke 86-71, national semifinal. Connecticut - Automatic bid, Big East tournament champion; defeated No. 16 St. Francis 86-37, first round; defeated No. 9 Iowa 86-48, second round; defeated No. 4 Penn State 82-64, regional semifinal; defeated No. 7 Old Dominion 85-64, regional final; defeated No. 2 Tennessee 79-56, national semifinal.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORDS: Oklahoma - 11-4, 5 years. Connecticut - 40-11, 14 years.