Final Four 2004 – New Orleans

Diana Taurasi ended her brilliant college career with an exclamation point: in an impetuous celebration of University of Connecticut’s third straight national title, she dropkicked the game ball into the upper section of the New Orleans Arena. It was a fitting conclusion to a season and tournament full of dramatic story lines and milestones. As “parity” became the new buzz-word, the ever growing fan base of women’s college basketball continued to reap the benefits as a more talented and evenly distributed player pool met an increasingly skilled coaching population.

“The game has changed,” said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. “We have seen the most significant changes this season in the number of teams at the number one spot and the number of upsets this season and in the tournament. The parity we’ve all hoped for and used to question we no longer need to question.”

Consider the end of the year awards: Duke’s brilliant senior Alana Beard, the consensus national player of the year, didn’t reach the Final Four. While five Kodak All-Americans were on the Final Four teams, it was the surprising Minnesota Gophers who boasted two – junior Janel McCarville and senior Lindsay Whalen. Coach of the Year honors went to three different coaches: Tennessee’s Pat Summitt (Naismith), Penn State’s Rene Portland (WBCA) and the University of Houston’s Joe Curl (AP). Six years after his first team went 5-22, Curl led Houston to a 28-4 record, the most wins in the school’s history, and senior Chandi Jones was named Conference USA’s fist Kodak All-American.

The gap between those who’ve been coaching for 20-plus years – Jody Conradt, Debbie Ryan, or Andy Landers – and younger, successful coaches is beginning to be bridged. “The new generation of people are taking over,” said University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. “People like Pam [Borton, Minnesota], Kim Mulkey-Robertson [Baylor], Pokey Chatman [LSU’s interim coach]. What they’re doing is taking all the benefits they got from those [older coaches] and they’re applying it to the players of today. The coaches are more serious, in that they study more. And athletic directors and administrators should take some of the credit. If they don’t have a coach who is working hard enough and is good enough, they fire them. Whereas, a few years ago, it was like, ‘Hey, listen, we have a women’s coach, we have a women’s program, don’t bother me.’ We’re getting away from that. Which is really, really good.”

A measure of how the skill level across women’s basketball college programs has grown was an almost incidental highlight of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Night of All-Stars basketball doubleheader. During the All-Star challenge, which pitted the top college seniors against the USA Basketball Women’s Senior Team, a 3-point contest for the collegians. A tie between three of the seniors forced Stanford’s Nicole Powell, Boston College’s Amber Jacobs and Kesha Watson, a 5’8″ guard from Oklahoma City University, a NAIA school, into a shoot out. When Powell and Jacobs faced off, they tied, putting Watson in the spotlight. Watson calmly nailed her shots and emerged victorious, much to the delight of the crowd and her teammates.

Watson’s team, though, didn’t fare as well, losing 105-58 to a National team which fielded top WNBA players including Lisa Leslie, Tamika Catchings, Katie Smith and Pee Wee Johnson. In defeat, All-Star coach Curl had nothing but praise for players on both sides of the court. “What I saw was the best basketball players in the world. And our kids are potentially going to be the best in the world. I mean Ohlde (Kansas State) – how long is she? And Stephens (Texas) – how strong is she? Shameka Christon (game MVP from Arkansas) absolutely played toe-to-toe with anybody. If we’d played seven or eight kids, we might have made this….” Curl paused dramatically. “A 30-point game.”

National Team coach Van Chancellor echoed Curl’s assessment of the college seniors. “I thought the top seven, eight players had come a long, long way. No doubt in my mind. They can do more things. They’re quicker, more agile. One of the best drafts we’ve ever had.”

“You could see that they were very excited and hungry,” added Renee Brown, WNBA Director of Player Personnel. “Even when they were down 30, 40 points, they never gave up. And they never backed down. That says something about them. When I look out on the floor, I see where we are, and then I see our future. And our future looks really bright.”

The first half of the doubleheader, the WBCA high school Red vs. White All-America game, not only gave fans of college basketball an early look at their team’s future stars, but also highlighted the impact of the WNBA. WBCA High School player of the Year and future Lady Vol Alexis Hornbuckle delighted in the chance to playfully spar with Houston Comets Cynthia Cooper. “I don’t want to ‘Be Like Coop,'” she teased as Cooper presented her the Red MVP trophy. “I want to be better than Coop!”

“I was a big Cooper fan,” revealed Hornbuckle afterwards. “I always watched all the games. It gives you something to work towards and look forward to. It used to be you got to junior high and you looked forward to high school and then college. Now, you can stay in the U.S. and your family can come out to watch and support you. A lot of girls are working harder.”

The return of the Final Four to New Orleans 13 years after the city hosted the tournament in 1991 gave Linda Bruno, former chair of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Committee and current A-10 commissioner, a chance to reflect on the game’s evolution. “We were begging people to take it in those days,” recalled Bruno. “New Orleans was one of the first places that actually stepped up and wanted to do the tournament.” Auriemma, whose first Final Four team played in that tournament made sure his current team visited the 11,000 seat Lakefront Arena where it was held. “They all looked around and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.'” Auriemma remembers only 6,500-7,000 tickets being sold. “It’s just more of how far the game of basketball has come in a really short period of time.”

While this year’s Final Four featuring newcomers Louisiana State University and Minnesota against perennial guests Tennessee and Connecticut continued a string of sellouts, one wonders if the women’s Basketball Committee isn’t gently kicking itself for not being prescient about the game’s growth. In 2002, the first time the games were held in a dome, San Antonio drew 59,238. Last year’s games at the Georgia Dome drew 56,420. This year’s return to a smaller arena venue meant only 36,422 tickets were available. “Imagine how many more tickets we might have sold,” said Women’s Basketball Division I Chair Cheryl Marra, “particularly with some newcomers and somebody from the home state in the championship.” But the committee will have to wait until 2011 to fully evaluate the pros and con’s of Final Four sites. Until then, the dance between the expanded seating capacity of domes and the intimacy and excitement of the arenas will continue: in 2005 the tournament with be held at the 37,263 seat RCA Dome in Indiana, Indianapolis, while the 2006 will be played at Boston’s Fleet Center (18,560 seats).

But, if not as many people could watch the games in person, the good news was that television viewership continued to grow. The four regional finals garnered the highest ratings since ESPN began their coverage in 1996. Last year’s somewhat controversial decision to shift the women’s final games to a Sunday/Tuesday format so as not to conflict with the men’s Final Four continued to pay off. The overall ratings for the semi-finals increased, with the Connecticut/Minnesota game experiencing a 9% increase over last year’s Texas/Connecticut game.

The Minnesota team that faced UConn in the semis had come a long way from the program that went 8-20 four years ago. Over her career, the tough and multi-faceted senior Whalen had guided Minnesota from the bottom of the Big 10 to the Final Four, and the Gophers reflected her grit and determination every minute they were on the court. In a fierce battle of balanced guard and post play, Connecticut survived every Minnesota run and emerged victorious with a 67-58 win.

“I’m very proud of our team for surviving the punches and coming back,” said second-year Minnesota coach Borton. “It just wasn’t our night on rebounds and getting some loose balls and just hitting that key shot. We made a great run throughout the NCAA Tournament. I think we showed that we belong here as a team and made a name for ourselves.”

In the first semi-final game, where points were granted for grit, not style, Tennessee managed to contain LSU’s All-American sophomore Seimone Augustus and advance with a 52-50 victory in dramatic fashion. With seconds left, a triple team forced LSU’s spectacular point guard Temeka Johnson into a turnover that Tennessee converted into a basket as time ran out.

Afterwards, interim coach Chatman, who took over for the ailing LSU coach Sue Gunter two months ago, diminished the importance of the turnover and focused on the game as a whole. “I drove all the positives home,” said Chatman, “and then I ended it on second chance points. The game was lost in the paint. Then we talked about how they don’t need to hang their heads. They need to enjoy this experience. I don’t think these kids were happy just to be here – they expected to win. I hope it stays with them long enough to get back again.”

The Connecticut and Tennessee victories put one of the best rivalries in college sport on center stage. After recovering from an early 17-point deficit, a classic battle emerged, and the Volunteers gave the Huskies everything they could handle. But behind the leadership of senior Taurasi, UConn repelled run after run to claim the National Championship, 70-61.

Reflecting on a team that many had written off Summitt said, “they’re one of the gutsiest, most determined, most ambitious teams I’ve coached in long time. I’m not going to think about this team this summer and think, “Oh, they failed.” No, by most people’s standards, they overachieved. By my standards, they found a way to win and they’re champions in that regard.”

In victory, the usually loquacious Auriemma was rendered almost inarticulate. “There are things that happen to you in life, and when people ask you to describe them, it’s difficult,” he explained. “You’re just so happy. And to do this against a program that’s so good is the most gratifying thing in the world.” While he couldn’t resist one last jab at his senior star (“What I’ll remember is those two missed free throws at the end of the game.”), his public tribute to Taurasi was more than eloquent.

“If it weren’t for the way she is, the way she plays the game, if it weren’t for the way she comes to practice every day, there’s no way her teammates could have done what they did tonight.”

For many reasons the Championship game earned the best ratings for a basketball game – male, female or professional – in ESPN’s 25-year history: the now classic match-up between Auriemma and Summitt; the possibility Tennessee, the only other women’s team to “three-peat,” might stop their arch rivals from attaining the same plateau; the opportunity for UConn to become the first school to win both a men’s and women’s national titles in a season. But as important, one hopes, was the drawing power of 6’ guard Diana Taurasi. Beyond her impressive numbers – 2,156 career points, Connecticut’s all-time leader in assists and 3-point field goals, 4 Final Fours, three National Championships – Taurasi plays the game with a mixture of skill, ferocity and irreverence that is addictive to fans and inspiring to teammates. She is part of a new generation of players.

“Growing up, I watched Magic and Michael, and I wanted to play like them,” reflected Taurasi. “These days I don’t think you can say that anymore. I hope people will say, ‘You play like Seimone Augustus, Alana Beard, Chamique Holdsclaw.’ Women’s basketball has come that far.”

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