Pressure's on Taurasi as tourney approaches

Diana Taurasi takes a bounce pass and hoists a sweet 12-foot shot that skims over the rim and tweaks the back of the net -- thwip! Mike Cheng, a University of Connecticut team manager, collects the ball and sends it back to Taurasi. Thwip! And again and again. Thwip! Thwip!

Tuesday's formal practice has been over for a while, but Taurasi is in a groove here. She's so on you almost miss the subtle shuffling. Her jumper, at least on this afternoon, has no jump. You can see the layers of white athletic tape wrapped tightly around both of her ankles peeking out just above her socks. As the 5-foot-11 junior guard moves around, you can make out the slightly listing posture that betrays a tender back, something more typical among the shuffleboard set than in a 20-year-old.

When she is healthy, Taurasi is one of the best women's college basketball players in the country. It is quite possible that even the injured Taurasi, under her adverse circumstances, has been the country's most valuable player.

Taurasi's value can be found in her statistics; she leads UConn in six important categories: scoring (16.3 points per game), rebounds (6.2), assists (4.6), blocks (1.2), 3-point field goals (50) and free-throw percentage (83 percent).

There is a bone spur in her right ankle. There is an aching lower back. There is constant pain flashing up and down her lower leg. As the season has progressed, her limp -- accompanied by an occasional grimace -- has become more noticeable. As a result, the freshness she usually brings to the game, the wild and inventive spontaneity is gone.

When the NCAA Tournament commences, there might be no single player in the country, man or woman, who will feel the pressure more acutely than Taurasi. The four seniors who led Connecticut to its third national championship last year -- Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams -- are all playing in the WNBA. UConn's four best players after Taurasi? Two freshmen and two sophomores who had four career starts between them before the season began.

And yet, UConn (31-1) is the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. If Taurasi was healthy, the Huskies would probably be in position to back that up in the Final Four in Atlanta. Realistically, that might be beyond this team.

"She's 30, 40, maybe 50 percent," said coach Geno Auriemma on Tuesday. "She won't be 100 percent until she gets (the bone spur) cleaned up after the season.

"It's tough. There's no one else for her to lean on. There's no Butch Cassidy to go with her Sundance Kid. She's on her own. She's riding solo. She can't take a night off."

Taurasi doesn't like to talk about it. Raise the issue and she claims she's fine, fine, fine. Press the subject and she'll say, "It's definitely something I have to deal with."

The physical obstacles are only part of the burden.

"We've always had juniors and seniors to fall back on," said Chris Dailey, Connecticut's associate head coach. "That didn't happen this year. D did as much as she could. At times, it's overwhelming to be in that position."

Taurasi had already missed the game against South Florida and significant practice time when the anticipated regular-season game with Tennessee arrived on Jan. 4. Taurasi virtually did it by herself. Her 65-foot heave at the end of the first half gave the Huskies a huge lift, and her 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left in regulation forced the game into overtime, which Connecticut won 63-62.

Taurasi scored 25 points and was at her best when the team needed her the most. It was as close as UConn came to losing during the school's record 70-game winning streak that was ended by Villanova in the Big East tournament championship game.

Taurasi, the Naismith national high school player of the year in 2000, has been thrust into critical-mass moments since she arrived as a freshman in 2001. The Huskies managed to reach the Final Four that year despite losing All-Americans Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph. In the semifinals against Notre Dame, Taurasi took 15 shots and made only one.

Last year, surrounded by four soon-to-be WNBA first-round draft choices, Taurasi was the second-leading scorer and played the second-most minutes. When Auriemma got a little nervous in the championship final against Oklahoma, he called a rare clear-out play for his sophomore. Taurasi responded by sticking a critical three-point play.

She won't admit it, but this has been a trying season on all levels. There was a moment in the Big East championship loss to Villanova that betrayed her stiff upper lip. Taurasi, who would shoot 5-for-17, was out of character all game long, forcing shots and looking out of rhythm. With 1:50 left in the game, she was called for her fourth foul. During her collision with the Wildcats' Katie Davis, she was hit on the nose.

As Taurasi struggled to blink back the tears, you wondered if it was the blow to the face or the stinging pain of her fourth loss in 106 college games.

"The wear and tear of the season, that's probably what you saw on TV," said Auriemma. "That's why she should be the player of the year. She's had to do this by herself.

"She's El Cid from Spain. Prop her up on her horse and send her out there to lead the troops."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.