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Original Issue

Flat-out Perfect Four hypercompetitive senior roommates lifted Connecticut to the NCAA women's title--and a place in history

The Connecticut women's basketball program is conservative. One
of coach Geno Auriemma's favorite words is no--as in no headbands,
no visible tattoos, no headphones in public, no backward baseball
caps, no names on the backs of uniforms, no shirts untucked, even
in practice, and, foremost, no premature praise. So when the
Huskies' class of 2002 showed up four years ago heralded as the
No. 1 crop of recruits in the nation, Auriemma and his staff
refused to pass judgment. "We always told them, it wouldn't be
till the end of their four years that we'd determine if they were
the Number 1 recruiting class in the country," says UConn
associate head coach Chris Dailey. "It's not what you do before
you get here, it's what you do after you get here."

It's official now: Connecticut seniors Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha
Jones and Tamika Williams constituted the best recruiting class
of 1998. With help from sophomore shooting guard Diana Taurasi
(who in a couple of years may be judged to be the best player
ever to wear a nameless Huskies jersey), the seniors beat a tough
Oklahoma team 82-70 in the national title game at the Alamodome
in San Antonio on Sunday night to complete a 39-0 season and add
a second title to the one they helped win in 2000. Along the way
UConn set new standards for dominance, outscoring opponents by an
average of 35.4 points and handing out 846 assists (against its
opponents' 410), both NCAA records, and enjoying a rebounding
margin of 15.5 boards per game.

With their athleticism, hustle and unselfish play, the Huskies
won over new fans with every game and earned praise from some
surprising quarters. Shortly after Connecticut crushed her team
79-56 in the semifinals last Friday, coach Pat Summitt of
archrival Tennessee approached the UConn locker room and asked
Dailey for permission to address the Huskies. The revelry in the
dressing room abruptly stopped when Summitt, the owner of a
record six NCAA titles and a record-tying 788 career wins,
entered. "Guys, I know this is out of character," she said to a
stunned audience, "but I have to tell you, though I hated to be
on the receiving end of it, you played a great game. You are a
great team."

Even the difficult-to-please Auriemma concedes that there were
many five-minute stretches in games this season during which "I'm
not sure we could have done it better," he says. "Every pass was
right, every cut was right." This championship, his third, got
him a little more choked up than the last one. "These four
seniors have done so many great things that I would have felt
absolutely horrible if I'd sent them off without something like
this," Auriemma said late on Sunday. "How many chances do you get
to send them off the right way?"

Three other NCAA women's champions have gone undefeated--including
Auriemma's 1994-95 team, which finished 35-0--and each of them can
make a case for being the best team ever. But this senior class,
says Auriemma, "is unique. We may never see anything like it

The seniors bring different strengths to the mix--Williams,
probably the best athlete, is the politician of the group,
serving as president of the student-athlete advisory board; Jones
is the rock, having never missed a game or practice; Cash is the
aggressive one; the multitalented Bird is the shy leader--but the
four have a lot in common. All are on the Dean's List. All
received All-America recognition this year. All are sure to be
first-round WNBA draft picks. "One of the beauties of this group
is that individually they've gotten tremendous accolades, but
it's their collective spirit and will that make them stand out,"
says Auriemma. "As good as they are, they look to each other to
get better."

Best of friends, the four live together in an off-campus
apartment where, once a week, they cook dinner for what Cash
calls "family night." As on the court, they complement each other
beautifully in the kitchen: Williams prepares the meat, Cash
makes the side dishes, Jones handles the pasta and Bird takes
care of dessert. "If one of us isn't there, we all miss out,"
says Williams.

Harmony doesn't attend everything they do together, however.
They're so competitive that each one of them is willing--eager,
even--to cheat to win at spades or 31 or Bop It. "They cheat to
get caught so they can start fighting and arguing, which is what
they really want to do," says Auriemma.

All season post players Cash, Jones and Williams held friendly
competitions to see who could get the most rebounds in a game,
which may help explain Connecticut's dominance in the paint.
"I've never been around a group that is so competitive," says
Cash. "It gets ridiculous at times." At Senior Night on Feb. 20
the four held a contest to see who would be the first to crack
under the emotional weight of the evening and start crying. None
of them did.

The ringleader in the Huskies' tests of will is Bird, according
to Taurasi. "Sue's definitely the biggest cheater and the biggest
competitor and the biggest sore loser," she says. "That's why our
team is good. We take on her personality in everything we do. It
doesn't matter what it is. She has to be the first one through
the door, the first one to the elevator."

Even so, Bird has rarely been one to put herself first on the
court. A gifted shooter who as a preteen entertained crowds by
shooting three-pointers at halftime of her older sister's high
school games in Syosset, N.Y., Bird prefers to distribute the
ball. Her unselfishness has both aggravated and impressed
Auriemma. "What's beautiful about Sue is she's not just a point
guard because she plays the position, she is that position," he
says. "She not only wants to know every option in our offense,
but she also wants to know everything about all the guys on the
team. She cares about them deeply, and that's what makes
everybody respect her."

"Sue doesn't realize how good she is," adds Taurasi. "She could
average 25 [points] a night, but she's in it to make others

That's why her position as UConn's designated hardware
collector--she won the Wade Trophy as well as the AP and Naismith
Player of the Year awards--makes Bird a little uncomfortable.
"When you have teammates who are just as talented as you are,
it's kind of weird to get all the attention," she says.

Upon receiving the AP award last Thursday, Bird sheepishly
admitted that, as is the case with most awards she wins, her
parents would probably have to read about this one in the paper.
"I feel silly running back to my room to call my mom and say,
'Guess what? I won an award,'" she says.

Had Bird not been humble when she arrived at Connecticut,
Auriemma's system would have drilled humility into her. Last
Saturday morning, while the rest of the country was reading about
UConn's domination of Tennessee, a group of Huskies stood on a
balcony at La Mansion del Rio hotel and fretted over all the
things they'd messed up--the layups they'd allowed, the rebounds
they should have gotten, the screens they failed to set. "You
might have done 20,000 things right, but the one thing you did
wrong will be the thing Coach shows on tape," says Cash.

Few egos blossom on Auriemma's watch. "He sets us up to fail in
practice every day," says Bird. "He might put us in a situation
where we're five playing against eight. You can't turn around and
say, 'But they have eight people!' You have to figure out a way,
and once you do, that's when you start building confidence in
yourself. That's why we have confidence in each other. When
you're in a tough situation in a game, you know you can do it
because you've done it every day in practice."

Auriemma's team-oriented system is one reason he'll continue to
be a regular at the Final Four. Another is talent, which he
continues to attract from all over the country. Connecticut's
recruiting class of 2002 is already being touted--by people
outside the program, of course--as the next "greatest ever." The
load of top 15 talent includes Naismith high school player of the
year Ann Strother, a multifaceted 6'1" guard out of Highlands
Ranch, Colo.; Willnett Crockett, a laid-back 6'3" forward in the
Asjha Jones mold from Harbor City, Calif.; 5'11" point guard
Nicole Wolff, the confident daughter of Boston University men's
coach Dennis Wolff, who has some similarities to Bird; and
Barbara Turner, a lively 6-foot forward from Cleveland who might
sharpen Auriemma's already honed wit. "We already got Eddie
Haskell," Auriemma told The Hartford Courant recently, referring
to the insouciant Taurasi. "Now we're getting Eddie Murphy." The
Huskies are still hoping to sign Gillian Goring, a 6'7" center
who's considered the top recruit at her position. A native of
Trinidad, Goring has been playing in Waterloo, Iowa.

The class of 2006 has the highest standard to measure up to, not
just in terms of winning, but also in terms of teamwork. When
Bird and Taurasi--"the best offensive backcourt I've seen in my 28
years," according to Summitt--struggled on the perimeter against
the Sooners, hitting nary a three for the first time all year,
the frontcourt of Cash, Jones and Williams took over, pounding
undersized Oklahoma inside for 51 points and 31 rebounds. "That
was, without question, the most difficult game we've had to
play," said Auriemma, who watched the Sooners whittle UConn's
lead from 16 points to six with 2:22 left. "Oklahoma was
unbelievably good."

But not good enough to foil the Huskies' quest for perfection.
When the buzzer sounded, all earlier bets were off. Bird walked
to a TV camera and Cash donned a radio headset while Jones and
Williams embraced their teammates. As a huge portion of the
29,619 spectators roared, the four seniors finally shed tears.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES STAR SHOTS Tamika Williams and Diana Taurasi were the focus as they celebrated UConn's 39-0 season [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK FLOOR LEADERS Cash (32) was a dominating presence on the inside against Oklahoma, while Bird was unafraid to hit the other boards.

FIVE COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK (5) FAB FIVE Every Connecticut starter--(from far left) Bird, Taurasi, Williams, Cash and Jones--earned All-America recognition, and point guard Bird was also named the national player of the year.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES (2) Dashing After they ran the table, Auriemma (left) and the Huskies players had a list of reasons to celebrate their remarkable season.

Top This

This season Connecticut not only went 39-0 and won its third
national title in eight years, but it also dominated opponents
as no other women's college basketball team has.

0: Games during which Huskies trailed in second half.
Opponent who led UConn longest into a game was Tennessee,
which was ahead 27-26 with 6:10 left in first half on Jan. 5.

6: Biggest point deficit Connecticut faced, against
Tennessee on Jan. 5 and Virginia Tech on Jan. 29.

49:59: Time (of 1,560 minutes) that UConn trailed.

48: Seconds that Connecticut trailed during the Final Four,
after Tennessee took 2-0 lead in last Friday's NCAA semifinals.

50.7: Points per game allowed by Huskies during regular
season, the lowest average in NCAA women's history.

35.4: UConn's average margin of victory, the largest in
NCAA women's history. --David Sabino