March 31, 2002

By ELIZABETH A. DAVIS
AP Sports Writer

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Connecicut coach Geno Auriemma knew what he was talking about three months ago when he said Oklahoma would be a tough team in March.

While Oklahoma missed a slew of inside shots Sunday night, Auriemma's Huskies still had to come up big to beat the determined Sooners 82-70 to complete a perfect season.

"It was without question the most difficult game we have had to play," said Auriemma, whose team beat Oklahoma by 14 points at home in December. "Oklahoma was unbelievably good. They were unbelievably good."

Oklahoma, making its first appearance in the championship game, never let the Huskies (39-0) get too far ahead. The Sooners trailed by only six points with 2:16 to go.

Oklahoma (32-4) finished the best season in school and Big 12 Conference history by making Connecticut work hard for its third national title and second undefeated season.

The Sooners were aggressive, driving to the basket, but they missed layups and easy putbacks when Connecticut didn't.

After Connecticut's Asjha Jones drove along the baseline for a layup, Oklahoma's Caton Hill tried a similar move. She missed.

"We got good looks but we couldn't get them to go down," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said.

That's the way it was all night.

"We are undersized, and they start three posts," Hill said. "Swin (Cash) is an agile post. Neither Jamie (Talbert) nor I are true posts at all. So we don't match up well with that. But I think we played with them there until the end. We just couldn't capitalize on opportunities we had."

Hill finished 3-for-10 from the field with nine points, and Talbert was 2-of-6 with six points.

Cash, selected the most outstanding player of the Final Four, was 5-of-9 from the field and 10-of-12 from the foul line for a game-high 20 points.

While Connecticut dominated inside, its outside shooting wasn't its best.

But Oklahoma couldn't shut down every phase of the Huskies' game.

Oklahoma was 24-of-62 from the field and 14-of-20 from the foul line.

The Sooners' perimeter defense couldn't have been better, holding Connecticut to 0-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. And the Huskies had 21 turnovers that led to 23 points for Oklahoma. Connecticut outrebounded Oklahoma 44-25.

The Sooners lost at Connecticut 86-72 on Dec. 22, one of the Huskies' closest victories of the season. Oklahoma cut it to 55-50 with 9:22 left, but that was as close as the Sooners would get.

After that game Auriemma said: "They're one of these teams that come March is going to be really hard for someone to play."

The Sooners are 0-4 against Connecticut, but believed the Huskies were beatable.

And they played that way.

"I don't know if there was a national championship game played so hard by both teams," Auriemma said.

Oklahoma All-American Stacey Dales had 18 points before fouling out. Rosalind Ross added 17, and LaNeishea Caufield had 14 points and four steals.

The locker room was quiet while most of the players relaxed and ate sandwiches or chips.

Talbert, a senior, sat in her locker crying, but she was most upset about not being able to put on her uniform again.

While the Sooners were disappointed they came up short, they know they played better in this game than in December.

"We played with them this whole game," Hill said. "We just couldn't get past that barrier."

The teams first played in December 1999 in Norman, Okla., and the Huskies won 85-68. Connecticut won again in the regional semifinals by 22 points en route to the 2000 championship.

Despite the loss, Oklahoma's program has come a long way.

The university disbanded the women's basketball program after posting a 7-22 record in 1989-90. It was reinstated eight days later after some administrators, community leaders and other women's basketball coaches campaigned against the move.

The team had three winning seasons in the next six years before coach Sherri Coale was hired in 1996. Her first season ended 5-22, but in two seasons the program was finally above .500.

The Sooners continued to improve, winning the Big 12 regular- season and tournament championships this year for the first time in school history.

"If they are the best team ever, we're really close," Hill said.