|Wednesday, October 15
Updated: November 16, 11:30 AM ET
UConn still has Taurasi as 2003-04 season nears
By Melanie Jackson
Special to ESPN.com
Geno Auriemma enjoys telling a good story.
Auriemma seems to have mastered postgame news conferences as well as his sideline strategies. He simply tells it like it is. And he usually takes his time doing so.
But last March, Auriemma came up with six words that summed up 2002-03 rather succinctly: "We got Diana and you don't."
It was a tough statement to argue with. Diana Taurasi did seem to be the difference last season, leading a team that started two freshmen and a sophomore to the Huskies' second straight national championship. Along the way, UConn won its first 31 games of the season to set the NCAA Division I women's record for consecutive wins (70), and became the first team in history to win the NCAA title without a senior on its roster.
It's too soon to know which team will be the toast of New Orleans, site of the next Final Four. But with Taurasi and everybody else back from last year's squad, UConn is regarded as the early favorite when the 2003-04 season officially tips off Saturday as teams across the country hold their first practices.
"How can I have the best player maybe in college basketball history and say, 'You know, maybe we're not as good as people think.' I only say, 'We're not as good as you think,' when we're not that good," Auriemma said earlier this week. "When we're good, I tell people we're good. So yeah, we're good. That's not exactly news, is it?"
Definitely not. Connecticut has won three of the past four NCAA titles, and had it not been for Ruth Riley and Notre Dame in 2001, the Huskies very well could be going for their fifth straight championship this season. As it is, UConn will try to win its third consecutive national title, something done only once before, by Tennessee in 1996-98.
Taurasi, who has been to the Final Four in each of her three previous seasons, makes the dream a reality. After graduating four starters from the 2001-02 team that went 39-0, UConn entered last season with few expectations. Still, the Huskies earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year.
Once March Madness got under way, Taurasi only got better and better. In the NCAA Tournament, she scored at least 20 points in all six games, including a career-high 35 points in the second round as UConn overcame a two-point halftime deficit against TCU, a performance that incidentally prompted Auriemma's Taurasi motto.
Then, in the national semifinals, Taurasi hit a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc to rally the Huskies past Texas, 71-69. Taurasi, whose key defensive play also stymied Texas' last-chance shot at the buzzer, finished with 26 points and ignited a late-game run that allowed UConn to come back from a six-point deficit.
Even before Auriemma opened his mouth after the game, the storyline was clear: UConn had Taurasi; Texas didn't.
Auriemma expects that to continue to give the Huskies the edge this season, which Taurasi enters with 1,588 points, 590 behind Nykesha Sales' 2,178, the UConn career scoring record.
"When there are three minutes or five minutes left in the game, we have Diana Taurasi, so we have a much better chance of winning the game than you do," Auriemma explained. "She will do whatever she has to do to win the game. Exactly the little, or big thing she has to do. She's not afraid of the consequences of failure.
"I've always said going into the NCAA Tournament you have to have the best talent, all those intangibles or a player who transcended the entire Final Four and is able to take the stage and dominate play."
Auriemma says Svetlana Abrosimova, Shea Ralph and Swin Cash were the difference as UConn won the 2000 title in Philadelphia. In 2002, seniors Cash, Sue Bird, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones "played their parts to the max" in a group effort that won it all in San Antonio.
"But last year, for the first time, clearly, it was one singular player: Diana Taurasi," said Auriemma, who added that "tremendous contributions" from Ann Strother, Barbara Turner, Maria Conlon and Jessica Moore also were vital.
UConn, however, isn't the only team that returns nearly fully intact. Duke, which entered last season as the favorite before losing to Tennessee in the Final Four, lost just one starter, Michele Matyasovsky (5.0 ppg in 2002-03). But the Blue Devils return seven letterwinners, welcome back Monique Currie and added the nation's top-rated recruiting class, including 6-foot-3 Brittany Hunter, the PARADE high school player of the year in 2003, and 6-7 center Alison Bales.
"We knew (Hunter) was a great player coming in, but she's even better than what I anticipated," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "She's something special and picks things up very quickly. She has great instincts on the low block, runs the floor like a deer and has a combination of speed, athleticism and strength you don't often see.
"With Alison Bales' help, I feel (Hunter) is really going to help our low post become a strength for us this year."
Duke won an ACC-record 35 games last season, posted a perfect 19-0 mark against league foes for the second straight year and is riding the nation's longest conference winning streak (43 games). Do-it-all Blue Devil Alana Beard, Taurasi's top competition for national player of the year honors, also is back, and Goestenkors believes the 5-11 guard is the best player in the country.
"Diana is a much better long-range shooter and a great passer, but Alana is the best overall player," Goestenkors said. "They're both phenomenal, but with Alana, you've got somebody who can change games just with her defense, and that's what separates her."
Still, Currie's return might be the X-factor for Duke. Currie, the 2002 ACC tournament MVP, missed last season with a torn ACL suffered in a preseason exhibition. The 6-foot guard/forward -- and the way most anticipated her and Beard to work together -- was a big reason Duke started out as No. 1 last season.
Instead, Currie -- who Goestenkors said is most valuable because of the mental toughness she brings to the court -- was relegated to hours of rehab on her left knee in the training room. But after catching one quick glance at her at the Final Four last April, it was obvious the chiseled and buffed up Currie spent equal time in the weight room.
"She's worked hard all summer and is even more fit now; she has a pro body," Goestenkors said. "She's close to 100 percent physically, but mentally she still has a little ways to go. A huge part of her game was penetrating and getting to the basket, so she's learning to trust her knee and explode to the basket, but she's gaining confidence week to week."
Injuries have already taken a toll on one of the other favorites this season as Texas senior Annissa Hastings, a 6-2 forward, suffered a ruptured left Achilles tendon in an individual workout on Monday. She was scheduled to undergo surgery on Thursday and is expected to miss the entire 2003-04 season, Texas coach Jody Conradt said Wednesday.
The Longhorns return six of their top eight scorers and three of their top four rebounders from last season's Final Four team that nearly eliminated UConn in the national semifinals. Senior Stacy Stephens, a 6-1 center, and 6-2 junior forward Heather Schreiber lead the way. Like Taurasi and Beard, both are Wade Trophy and Wooden award candidates.
Guard Jamie Carey, whose leadership in the backcourt played a vital role in Texas' run last April, also is back for her senior season, and 6-3 forward Tiffany Jackson is expected to be among the nation's top freshmen.
Other programs that figure to fit into the top-10 rankings are Kansas State, Stanford, Penn State and Purdue -- teams that, as Goestenkors points out, also return just about everybody from last season.
And that, Goestenkors says, really will bring more parity to the women's game this season.
"Look at the top teams -- we've all improved," said Goestenkors, who also cautions that LSU shouldn't be overlooked after graduating key players from its frontcourt. "UConn should be better. Stanford and K-State have everybody back. Go right down the line and none of us lost much at all. So it's exciting for the game and it's going to be a great year."
So is UConn the favorite? And does Auriemma really have the answer with "We got Diana and you don't"?
"I think he's right, and I think it discredits the rest of the team," Goestenkors said. "Ann Strother, as a freshman, played with so much poise. All those kids hit big shots down the stretch and I was impressed with their exceptional team play."
But can Strother and the rest keep coming up big for the Huskies?
"Hey, maybe Ann Strother and Willnett Crockett will have the sophomore slump. Maybe Jessica Moore's not going to get better. Yeah, maybe all of those things will happen," Auriemma said, before adding with a laugh, "and, you know, maybe they won't.
"For the first time in a long time, we were underdogs last year. That means you're not good enough to win. Listen, I like being the overdog. That's when everybody's shooting at you."
Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail the Dish at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com.