SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Not even an imperfect game could keep Connecticut from a perfect season.
Surviving an uncharacteristic rash of turnovers and poor outside shooting with strong inside play, the Huskies beat Oklahoma 82-70 last night for their third national championship.
The frontcourt trio of Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams led the Huskies (39-0) to an overwhelming rebounding advantage – and on this night, they sure needed it.
Connecticut won by big margins all season by wearing down opponents. Oklahoma (32-4) refused to let that happen.
“This was without question the most difficult game we have had to play,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “Oklahoma was unbelievably good. They were unbelievably good.”
Trailing by 16 early in the second half, Oklahoma got to within six with a little more than two minutes left. Things like that did not happen to the Huskies this season, but they responded as if it were an everyday occurrence.
Diana Taurasi converted a key three-point play and player of the year Sue Bird wrapped it up with six straight free throws. With 18 seconds left, Bird was able to dribble out the clock and the Huskies had their title.
“My team did a great job tonight,” Bird said. “That’s why we’re the greatest – well, not the greatest, but one of the greatest.”
Connecticut committed 21 turnovers, two short of its season high, and was 0-for-9 on 3-point shots. All that did was force the Huskies to find another way to win it, and they did by overpowering the Sooners inside as 29,619 watched in the Alamodome.
Cash was the strongest presence with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Jones had 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Williams finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
Cash was selected the outstanding player in the Final Four.
Oh, and don’t forget the guards. Bird had 14 points and four assists and made all eight of her free throws. Taurasi added 13 points and got the honor of heaving the ball into the stands when it was over.
Oklahoma showed its resiliency by making it a game after a poor start. All-American Stacey Dales led the Sooners with 18 points. Rosalind Ross scored 17 and LaNeishea Caufield had 14.
But the Sooners could not overcome their 39 percent shooting and Connecticut’s 44-25 rebounding advantage.
“Everybody has been saying this is a great team, but what are they going to do when they got in a close game?” Auriemma said. “Well, we got in a close game and these kids came through unbelievably.”
Connecticut asserted itself inside early, getting eight of its first nine baskets on putbacks or layups. The Huskies shot 60 percent in the first half and ended the period with an 8-0 run to lead 42-30.
The Huskies kept it up early in the second half and the lead grew to 54-38 when Taurasi scored less than six minutes into the half. A blowout looked imminent, but Oklahoma did not let it happen.
Dales and Ross each hit a 3-pointer, and the Sooners started to battle their way back.
Jamie Talbert’s rebound basket cut the lead to 66-57 and it was 71-63 after Caton Hill’s 3-pointer. And the Sooners kept coming, twice getting to within six, the last time on Dales’ layup with 2:15 to play.
That was as close as it would get.
Taurasi muscled in a shot while drawing the fifth foul on Dales and sank the free throw to make it 76-67. Then Connecticut made sure that Bird handled the ball the rest of the way, Oklahoma had to foul her and, demonstrating the poise she had shown all season, scored the Huskies’ final six points with her free throws.
As Bird dribbled out the clock, she and Taurasi slapped hands at midcourt. Like Red Auerbach lighting his victory cigar, this was their way of saying this one was over.
“We realized this was our last game,” said Bird, one of the Huskies’ four senior starters. “We wanted this very badly.”
Connecticut became the fourth team to go undefeated since women’s basketball came under the NCAA in 1981 and was the first school to do it twice.