Battle of the Titans: UT vs. UConn

In a sports world where players come and go, coaches are hired and fired and dynasties rise and fall, the reign of Tennessee and UConn over women's college basketball is the closest thing to a sure thing in athletics today.

So it's really no surprise that tonight's NCAA National Championship reunites these basketball juggernauts that have won nine title collectively once again. Even after the Lady Huskies lost four starters to graduation that were among the first six picks in the WNBA Draft, you just knew that UConn wouldn't miss a beat with the nation's top recruiting class ready to step into their shoes.

Tennessee achieved a comparable feat in 1998 by reloading with two Meeks and an Ace, after losing key components from its 1997 national title team, and went on to post a 39-0 record. With that accomplishment the Lady Vols set three precedents: (1) Becoming the first team to win a national title with as many as six defeats. (The Lady Vols went 23-10 in 1997.) (2) Becoming the first team to go undefeated the next season and (3) Becoming the first team to win three straight national championships.

While the addition of Tameka Catchings, Semeka Randall and Ace Clements was vital to UT's success in 1998, it was the return of Chamique Holdsclaw that made it possible. That point was underscored by the failure of Catchings, Randall and Clements to win another title after Holdsclaw departed.

Diana Taurasi fills that same go-to role for UConn and, consequently, brings out the best in her young teammates which include two freshman and a pair of sophomores in the starting lineup.

Even with last season's senior dominated lineup, no Lady Husky has given Tennessee the problems that Taurasi has. That was the case in this year's regular season meeting when the NCAA Player of the Year scored 25 points and hit a 60-foot shot at the end of the first half to give her team a lift and the lead going into intermission.

In Sunday's semifinal against Texas, she did much the same thing scoring 26 points and taking over down the stretch as UConn overcame a nine-point deficit. She leads the Huskies this season with 17.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. But she's not UConn's only offensive option as its front line of Barbara Turner, Ann Strother and Jessica Moore all average double digit scoring.

Keeping Taurasi from scoring her points is a lot easier said than done, and it's not even the top priority for the Lady Vols who must dictate pace, control the boards and play solid defense. Tennessee has to limit UConn's overall scoring capacity via an outstanding defensive effort and keep Taurasi from assuming command at key junctures of the contest.

Expect coach Pat Summitt to change defenses from man to zone in an effort to keep UConn off balance. Look for the Lady Vols to work the ball inside on offense and to send a strong contingent to the offensive glass. Too many misses from the perimeter will result in long rebounds and transition opportunities the other way.

The Lady Vols struggled from the outside against Duke and appeared stagnant against the zone. Having one game in the Georgia Dome under their belt should improve their shooting touch tonight while allowing them to get better offensive spacing.

Tennessee appears to have a quickness advantage overall, particularly up front where UConn might find it difficult to match up with Shyra Ely and Gwen Jackson. Ashley Robinson adds a height advantage that could be a boost off the bench if the talented 6-5 sophomore comes ready to play.

It's the inside and outside games working in tandem that is the critical to Tennessee's flow in the motion offense. It's an attack that gave UConn fits in its only loss of the season to Villanova, and will be more finely tuned than when these teams met the first time.

But more significant than the motion offense is the emotion Tennessee plays with on defense. The Lady Vols must have no fear and should play with unshakable confidence to dethrone UConn. This is a game that should be decided by the team that is best able to impose its will on the other. UConn won't drop the crown which means Tennessee must rip it away with malice.

Tennessee enters this game playing better than any team in the NCAA field of 64. UT played its worst game against Duke and still came away with a 10-point win against a team it lost to by 21 earlier this season. If the Lady Vols approach the level of play they demonstrated in the Mideast Regional they could defeat UConn soundly.

What seems more likely is that the game will be closely contested throughout with one team pulling away at the end. Although it goes against conventional wisdom, the guess here is that team will be Tennessee.

Prediction: Tennessee 72, UConn 65

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