Taurasi a rookie again, but still a role model

NEW ORLEANS -- The wet stuff was coming down after the women's final Tuesday night. Somebody said, of course, it was "raining cats and dogs."

In fact, it was just "reigning dogs." The UConn Huskies won their third consecutive national title. And the only time in the last five years they didn't win it all, 2001, they lost two stars in Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova to injury -- and still
made the Final Four.

That's not to say Notre Dame wouldn't have still won that NCAA title. It's just to point out how close UConn was to winning fifth in a row.

Credit for the last two will go mostly to Diana Taurasi. Remember, though, she was also the key player in the last few minutes of the 2002 title game, allowing UConn to hold off wouldn't-say-die Oklahoma.

She had the 1-of-15 shooting performance vs. Notre Dame in the national semifinals her freshman year. It's interesting that both she and Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw won three NCAA titles and had one bad shooting game in the NCAA Tournament. Taurasi's came her rookie season. Holdsclaw's came her senior year, when she was 2-for-18 in the East Regional final vs. Duke.

Both Taurasi and Holdsclaw were players who were ready for prime-time as soon as they got on campus. But you can tell that women's basketball has made strides in national recognition in the past few years by how much more attention Taurasi has gotten than Holdsclaw did -- though it seemed like Holdsclaw got a lot at the time.

The game's stature and the public's awareness of it has grown significantly even since Holdsclaw finished her Tennessee career in '99.

Holdsclaw was soft-spoken and did not project her confidence in interviews the same way Taurasi does. She had it -- make no mistake -- but it wasn't as evident when she was off court.

Taurasi said Tuesday she felt "light'' and "tingly'' after winning the championship for the third time. And, indeed, she has been
effervescent in personality during her career.

To see Taurasi so friendly, funny, pleasant and outgoing in her dealings with the media -- even now, when it's all old hat -- is as great
as seeing her marvelous, fearless, creative basketball ability on court.

Taurasi is being herself -- and how fortunate the sport of women's basketball is that she's this way. She doesn't big-time people or give
curt, dismissive answers. Even when UConn has lost this season, she has handled her "spokeswoman'' duties with the same kind of stand-up, responsible attitude.

A lot has been put on her shoulders, yet the shoulders are strong enough for it. She loves to play, and instead of turning everything else that goes along with being the best into "drudgery'' or "boring obligation,'' she just treats it as "what I'm doing right now, so why
not enjoy it?''

On Monday, the day before the title game, Taurasi sat in the individual interview room for some 45 minutes. She answered questions she has faced probably 100 times. She was funny, thoughtful, interesting.

Then someone had to ask the "plays like a guy'' question. Early in her career, Taurasi would just say, "Well, yeah, that's a compliment,
because guys are so good.''

Now, she has taken the next step in understanding something that she herself is proof of. Taurasi isn't "a guy.'' She's a woman, and she plays basketball like everybody -- male and female -- dreams of playing it.

She makes clutch shots, she figures out ways to get the ball where it needs to go. She is at ease on the biggest stage. She's cool under fire.

And so she said to the "plays like a guy'' question ... aren't we past that? There are so many female players now that kids can look up

"I hope people can start saying, 'You play like Chamique Holdsclaw, or Sheryl Swoopes, or Tamika Catchings or Katie Smith,' '' Taurasi said. "I think they will.''

And, right now, for someone to tell a youngster, "You play like Taurasi,'' is as big a compliment as there is.

Now, Taurasi has another title ... but doesn't have any time off. After a brief trip home, she headed to Denver on Thursday to join the U.S. national team.

Again, this is where just loving to play helps her. She understands that schedules sometimes don't give exceptional people time to be
ordinary people. The clock is ticking toward the 2004 Olympics, and the gold medal is no cinch no matter how much talent the Americans have.

Because of the WNBA season, the U.S. team's preparation time is truncated. This next week -- when the Americans will play three
exhibition games against Japan in Denver, Lubbock, Texas, and Houston -- is an important period.

"I'm thrilled to go,'' Taurasi said. "When you have an opportunity like that, you can't turn it down, no matter the circumstances. A little
rest would be nice, but ... ''

Now, Taurasi goes from being the best of the best in college to ... being a rookie again.

"I told them water, towels ... what do you need? I'll be Christian Laettner for you, I don't care,'' Taurasi said, referring to the former
Duke star's role just out of college with the men's "Dream Team'' in the 1992 Olympics. "I'll be happy with it.''

Except ... you can bet she'll provide a lot more than water and towels. Taurasi will adjust to the pro level very well. The only worry is the wear and tear, but sometimes "mindset'' will take you way past where physical exhaustion drops you off.

Here's to six more months of gallant basketball this year from Taurasi. Whether she makes the Olympic roster or not, her spring and
summer are packed. Maybe in October, she can take a break, look back and say, "Wow, that was something else.''

Then get ready for everything that's still to come.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.