Can Lady Vols Conquer UConn?

Tennessee has reached the Sweet 16 an incredible total of 23 times, the Final Four 15 times and won six national titles. It has won more NCAA Tournament games than any team in the history of women's college basketball, has played before the largest crowd in NCAA history (29,685 in San Antonio) and annually plays the toughest schedule in college basketball.

But on Tuesday in New Orleans the Lady Vols will be attempting to do something no Tennessee team has ever done — beat UConn for an NCAA title. Sure UT has beaten the Lady Huskies en route to a couple of titles however it's been one, two, three strikes they're out against UConn with the championship on the line.

Tennessee (31-3) has lost those three winner-take-all encounters by an average of 14 points per contest, which means if the Lady Vols are going to work any of the last-second magic that produced two-point victories over Baylor, Stanford and LSU, they'll have to keep it close.

They also have to find a way to keep Diana Taurasi from taking over the game. That's been mission impossible in the last five meetings between these hardwood giants as Taurasi has posted huge numbers, averaging 26.4 points and shooting better than 50 percent against Tennessee in those wins.

Meanwhile UConn (30-4) will be trying to equal Tennessee's record run of three national titles in a row and is aiming to become the first team in women's basketball history to win four national championships in five years.

Obviously there's more than enough incentive to fuel the fire of both squads, but is there enough talent on UT's roster to upend a UConn team that appears to have hit its stride after losing to Boston College in the Big East Tournament? That defeat and the No. 2 seed that resulted has given the Lady Huskies all the focus and motivation they needed to defend their championship in tonight's 8:30 title tilt in the New Orleans Arena. A victory by the Huskies over Georgia Tech on Monday provided an opportunity for UConn to become the first double champion in college history.

However the Lady Vols have plenty of incentive of their own given the string of losses inflicted by UConn and the strong desire to restore UT to the top of the heap after a six-year absence. Geno Auriemma's penchant for rubbing it in hasn't dampened Tennessee's fire for vengeance either.

"I don't know what people want me to do because we've lost five in a row," Summitt said in a press conference Monday. "I'm not going to start talking about the program. They've had our number and they'll have our number until we win one."

Winning one is the key for Tennessee because UConn as it is presently constituted would probably beat the Lady Vols four out of five times. The psychology is different in a final and there's plenty of history to suggest a team can overcome a superior opponent under such circumstances. Reference North Carolina State and Villanova's victories over Houston and Georgetown in the men's finals.

But to win the Lady Vols will need exceptional play in the post and on the boards. That means Ashley Robinson will need to take her intensity up a few notches from recent performances in the NCAA. Robinson's ability to establish an offensive presence in the pivot and pose a deterrent on the defensive end in the paint are critical. Likewise, Shyra Ely will have to improve over Sunday's miserable 1-of-11 shooting night and become a force on the boards. The more Tennessee can do to score inside the better chance it has to produce from the perimeter and a balanced attack is essential to beat UConn.

While attempting to take Taurasi out of her comfort zone, Tennessee has to make sure that sophomore forwards Barbara Turner and Ann Strother don't go off with big games. A couple of Lady Vols figure to share defensive duties against Taurasi with Tasha Butts offering the best match-up and LaToya Davis providing relief.

Freshman Sidney Spencer has been a reliable contributor off the bench and could be the wild card for UT in this contest. A big game by the 6-foot-3 forward would enhance the Lady Vols chances significantly.

If Tennessee has an advantage entering tonight's final it's having played and won three straight cliffhangers in the tournament. The Lady Vols have to bank on their defense keeping them close and hope their competitive edge honed through life-and-elimination battles will pay off.

Over the last three years UConn has been the predator and Tennessee the prey. They need to reverse that role tonight by luring the shark into shallow waters where it can be drowned.


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