Final Four 2002 – San Antonio
Jubilation: Experience Reigns at the Final Four
UConn Senior Tamika Williams’ voice rang with joy through the San Antonio Alamodome as she and her teammate celebrated the perfect end to a perfect season: a National Championship. In front of a record crowd of 29,619, the University of Connecticut completed a season of high expectations by defeating the University of Oklahoma 82-70 to win the school’s third title.
While their 39-0 record sparked much debate as to whether this senior-dominated team could be crowned “best ever,” coach Geno Auriemma tempered his thoughts with his own take on history. “They can debate it as long s they like or as little as they like,” he said. “I’ve always said it – we were the best team this year. You can’t say the “best ever,” because it’s different eras, different circumstances. We were the best team this year – by a little bit – over a really, really good team.
UConn’s victory was only the climax of a Final Four weekend of basketball that spun threads of the past, present and future together.
Sixteen years ago, Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil earned Final Four MVP honors when Texas capped off its own perfect season with its first-ever championship. Now Davis-Wrightsil, director of women’s basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs, is spearheading the drive to bring San Antonio a WNBA team.
The campaign to secure 6,000 season ticket deposits by Nov. 15 was launched mid-March. Two years of grassroots work, a partnership with the San Antonio Sports Foundation (SAFA) and local colleges, plus the added attention of the Final For combined to produce impressive result: a portion of their goal attained in two works. Understandably, Davis-Wrightsil is optimistic about the future. “One thing about San Antonio,” she said, “is there’s definitely a sense of ownership in this city. The people are embracing the idea right now, but they’ll have an opportunity to embrace a team – and that will become San Antonio’s team just like the Spurs re San Antonio’s team.”
Susan Blackwood, executive director of the SASF, organized the Final Four and understands local enthusiasm for a women’s professional team. The Spurs players, said Blackwood, “are great citizens of the community. [San Antonio fans] anticipate that’s what’s going to happen when the women players come in. And I don’t think the four teams that were here let them down – they were beautiful role models of what its like to watch women’s basketball.”
The first semifinal saw Duke’s winning streak stopped short when youth collided with experience. Fielding a freshman- and sophomore-heavy lineup, Duke lost 86-71 to a veteran Oklahoma team.
“You can tell they have four seniors on the floor most times,” said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, “and that they’ve played together forever. At the same time, I think our youth really showed at times. We didn’t make some of the smartest decisions that we’ve ever made. A lot of that had to do with experience.”
“I don’t think that saying we’re too young is an excuse,” added Duke freshman Wynter Whitley. “It is more of a reality. It is just going to make us more hungry for next time. Whoever we are playing next year is really going to get it.”
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale credited the tough play of her team’s Big 12 Conference opponents with bringing them victory.
We’ve been battle tested night in and night out, so when Duke made that dun in the second half and cut the score, we just responded the same way we did against Baylor and Kansas State and Texas,” she said.
The other semifinal featured perennial rivals Tennessee and Connecticut. After the much-anticipated game ended in a 23-point romp (79-56), Tennessee coach Pat Summitt took some small solace in the fact that the four extraordinary Connecticut seniors – Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams – were graduating.
“What I really admire about this Connecticut team is how inspired they play in every possession,” said Summitt. “That speaks for their character and what they brought to the floor against us.”
Tennessee, like Duke, expects to use this loss as motivation.
‘Our freshmen tonight showed a lot of promise,” said Summitt. ” I told them afterwards, ‘Now you can see by watching a team like Connecticut how hard you have to work and how much you have to want it and how you have to make the plays. ‘ I want them to remember this when they go to the gym this summer to work, and then they’ll know how hard they need to work when they get there.”
The Easter Sunday battle between Connecticut and Oklahoma for the National Championship pitted two coaches with strong connections.
Oklahoma’s Coale first met Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma after he won his first championship in 1995. Auriemma was recruiting one of her high school players in Norman Okla. Coale recalls being nervous as Auriemma watched her run what she remembers as a chaotic practice of 60 or so high school students of varying degrees of skill.
Afterwards, she said, Auriemma walked up to her and said, “This is unbelievable.”
Expecting the worst, Coale was stunned when he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. Do your players realize how good you are? Do they have any idea how lucky they are to be playing for you?”
Subsequently, Auriemma placed a call of support for Coale when, with no college coaching experience, she applied for the head position at Oklahoma.
“That program didn’t need just a good coach,” explained Auriemma. “They needed someone who was going to bring some respect to the program. And she did that immediately.”
During Coal’s six-year tenure, Oklahoma fan attendance has grown from 2,000 a game in 1996-97 to 5,8-pr game in 2001-02, while season ticket sales have escalated from 7 a year ago to 3,000-plus this season. The key to the turnaround was to persuade talented players to take a risk on an unheralded program. For Coale, that player was the superb guard from Canada, Stacey Dales. Dales was leaning towards Syracuse, but changed her mind after speaking to Coale.
“I believed in her vision, and I believed I could help the team to become a national power,” said Dales. “I wanted to be part of something that was struggling, and I wanted to help it change and get better.”
Now, almost 12 years to the day Oklahoma University had considered eliminating women’s basketball due to a poor record and fan apathy, Coale was leading her tem into the National Championship against Auriemma and UConn. That Coale was Auriemma’s assistant coach last summer at the Junior World Championships, and Stacy Hansmeyer, a former UConn player and now an Oklahoma assistant coach, was one of those high school students Auriemma had come to see six years ago only added to the somewhat surreal nature of the game.
The game was played in front of the largest cable television audience ever to watch a basketball game – men’s or women’s – and a record number of fans were in the stands. In fact, the number of attendees was the only surprise of the weekend for Blackwood of the SASF.
“I was overwhelmed by the fact that, after two teams losing and the game being Easter night at 7 p.m., that we had more fans than we had had on Friday night,” she said. “I was just blown away by that.”
The enthusiastic fans – along with a conservative estimate of 10 millions dollars of revenue generated for San Antonio – are among the reasons Blackwood has already initiated plans to seek the 2008 Finals. “From everything I’ve heard and from our measurement standards, it was a success,” she said. “Certainly I’m not taking it for granted. Every city pushes the bar a little higher.”
The final game did just that. Two of the best guard tandems in the country – Connecticut senior sue Bird and sophomore Diana Taurasi, and seniors Dales and LaNeishea Caulfield for Oklahoma – seemed to neutralize each other. Instead it was the three Connecticut senior forwards who won the battle in the paint and earned a hard-fought 82-70 victory.
“All this hard work the last four years,” said Bird afterwards, “to see it all pay off, to do what we did in this game and win – I think it’s incredible. It’s just a very fulfilling feeling.”
“The game speaks for itself tonight,” reflected Auriemma. “The way it was played and the way the two teams competed, the motions that were involved on both ends. I never thought the game was over until the buzzer went off.”
On the other side, Cole understood she would have been sad whatever the outcome. “For us it has never been about winning,” she said. “It’s been about the process. And the process of this particular group is over. We lose six seniors who are just incredible kids. To have them absent from our lives on a daily basis is what makes us sad. But forever they are going to remember what it feels like to be part of something that is right. ”
And so, after a weekend that saw the triumph of experience, it seemed only fitting that, when accepting the Sears Trophy, Auriemma focused all the attention on his seniors.
“Asjha Jones made one of the biggest shots in the game,” he said. “It looked like Tamika Williams got every single offensive rebound. Sue Bird made every free throw down the stretch. And if it wasn’t for Swin Cash, we wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
“When you play college basketball,” he concluded, “and you’re a senior, you want to leave a lasting impression. But there’s nothing that stays with you more than when you’re senior and you win you last game and you leave as a National Champion.