Last Friday night, on the eve of yet another No. 1-versus-No. 2
showdown between the Connecticut and Tennessee women, Huskies
sophomore guard Diana Taurasi sat outside a sports bar in the
lobby of the team hotel in Knoxville, her hair pulled back into a
ponytail and her legs curled beneath her. As assorted UConn
coaches, boosters and family members swirled around her, she
smiled, laughed and generally seemed about as tense as Enya on
Prozac. That the next afternoon she would be back in the national
spotlight for the first time since her 1-for-15 shooting flameout
against Notre Dame in last year's Final Four didn't seem to
bother her in the least. In fact, even when her former AAU coach,
Steve Kavaloski, dropped by, the only game-related advice he gave
her was, simply, Don't fade away on your jump shot.
The next afternoon, in front of 24,611 fans--an NCAA record for a
women's game--Taurasi neither faded nor missed the opportunity to
quiet the home crowd, most of whom were decked out in hazard-cone
orange. In leading the Huskies (16-0) to an 86-72 victory,
Taurasi scored a career-high 32 points, making 11 of 16 shots
from the field. She also showcased a variety of playground-style
leaners and drives that had a pair of WNBA scouts behind the
baseline murmuring and shaking their heads in appreciation. "We
had no answer for her," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose
Lady Vols lost for the first time after 11 wins. "Diana just had
her way today."
For Taurasi, it was as much of a breakout performance as a top
player on the nation's top team can have. Last year as a
freshman, she led an injury-depleted team to the Final Four, but
she was mainly a three-point gunner. This year Taurasi has played
more aggressively, becoming as much of a threat to slash to the
hole as shoot threes. At 6 feet, she has the height to post up
opposing guards as well as the strength and quick release to get
her shot off against bigger inside defenders. She credits the
latter to years of pickup games against guys--including idol Magic
Johnson--in and near her hometown of Chino, Calif. "When you're
playing against guys, you can't go inside so much because they're
going to punch your stuff," says Taurasi. "That helped me develop
a true jump shot, which most women don't have."
That Taurasi would choose this game to go off also speaks to her
big-game mentality because, in women's basketball, there's no
bigger game than Connecticut against Tennessee. The teams have
combined for eight of the last 15 national championships and have
faced off six times as the two top-ranked teams.
UConn's decisive victory not only put the Huskies in a class by
themselves, but also established Taurasi as a leading candidate
for player of the year. As she left the arena on Saturday night,
it was obvious that even this coolest of customers couldn't help
but get a little excited by the best rivalry in women's
basketball. "Yeah, maybe I was a little more pumped for today,"
she conceded with a smile. "You see 25,000 people out there
rooting against you--it's a great feeling."
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Taurasi quieted a record crowd of 24,611 in Knoxville with a career-high 32 points for the Huskies.