One team. One goal. One problem. With the NCAA championship
seemingly in their grasp on Sunday at the Target Center in
Minneapolis, the Lady Vols of Tennessee grabbed a nap. Having
spent the season repeating their pithy little mantra, one team,
one goal, an affirmation that was splashed across the cover of
their media guide, they flinched at the moment of truth. Although
Tennessee got Connecticut's trio of All-Americas in foul trouble
in the first half, the Lady Vols' ballyhooed sense of mission
suddenly failed them.
The Lady Vols learned this about the Huskies: They don't give you
more than one chance to knock them out. There are close-knit
teams, and there is Connecticut. The Huskies attend Mass together,
tailgate together and play charades together. Last summer they
toured Europe together, just as they'd hoped to tour the White
House together while in town for a game against Georgetown earlier
this season. There, they were told to assemble at a certain gate
at a certain time, but the gate never opened, a foul-up to which
coach Geno Auriemma alluded during his conversation with President
Clinton, who phoned to congratulate the Huskies after their 70-64
title-game victory on Sunday. When the President invited the team
to visit him in the Rose Garden, Auriemma thanked him, then added,
``Maybe this time we'll come through the front door!''
The Huskies had arrived at the Final Four with a 33-0 record and
the shared conviction that they were destined to make women's
basketball history. Only one team, the 34-0 1985-86 Lady Longhorns
of Texas, had put together a perfect season. ``The other teams
here are playing for a national championship,'' Auriemma told his
charges. ``We're playing for a piece of history.''
Yet while Connecticut traveled to Minneapolis with the best record
as well as the No. 1 national ranking, it was greeted by a host of
detractors. To the scoffers, third-ranked Tennessee (33-2) was the
team to beat. The Huskies' alleged shortcomings: They lacked depth
and they'd grown fat on a Big East schedule. (Snobs deride the
league as the Big Easy.) Sure, they knocked off then No. 1-ranked
Tennessee 77-66 in January, but that game had been at Gampel
Pavilion, the Huskies' home court in Storrs, and the Southeastern
Conference's Lady Vols were supposedly jet-lagged and frazzled by
their onerous (read: un-Huskylike) schedule. Even after seeing her
squad dismembered by Connecticut 87-60 on Blowout Saturday (the
Lady Vols overran Georgia 73-51 in the other semifinal), Stanford
coach Tara VanDerveer felt comfortable predicting, ``Tennessee is
going to win tomorrow, but I think it will be a good game.''
The Huskies have used such skepticism for sustenance all season.
They take their cue from Auriemma, the voluble Philadelphian with
the Eddie Murphy patter and the Eddie Munster hairline. Auriemma
seemed to spend most of his time in Minneapolis searching for his
six-year-old son, Michael, who wandered off at every opportunity,
and tendering sarcastic false apologies for his team. ``To be any
good,'' he said, ``you have to play in a big conference or speak
with a Southern accent, I guess.''
Fourteen minutes into the championship game, Auriemma's sardonic
pronouncement was looking like prophecy. The Huskies, down 28-25,
weren't playing so much to make history as they were to keep their
heads above water. Two of their All-Americas -- 5'5" junior point
guard Jennifer Rizzotti and 6'4" senior forward Rebecca Lobo --
had three fouls apiece; the other, 6'7" sophomore center Kara
Wolters, had two. Benching Wolters and Lobo, Auriemma sent out a
Lilliputian lineup, the most formidable member being 6-foot
forward Jamelle Elliott. The instructions: hang on until halftime.
By hook and by crook, with cheap buckets, filched rebounds and
big defensive stops, the Huskies did hang on. The Lady Vols left
the court at the half having built their lead, but only to six
points. Their best chance had come and gone.
``The non-All-Americas came through,'' said Elliott, a junior who
had spent much of the half banging bodies with the likes of
Tennessee's 6 4" Tiffani Johnson and 6'6" Vonda Ward. ``I can't
remember the last time I was in the game without either Rebecca or
Kara. I was getting bounced around pretty good.''
Best known earlier in her career for her ability to D-up against
much taller players, Elliott has, with Auriemma's coaxing, evolved
into a scorer (she averaged 14.8 points per game in the
tournament). ``He wants me to look for my shot instead of just
rebounding and screening all the time,'' says Elliott, who
followed her21-point output against Stanford with13 points
against the Lady Vols, then elicited squeals of joy from her
teammates when she was named to the all-tournament team.
``It's about time she got some recognition,'' said Wolters.
Wistfully, Wolters added, ``If I only had her physical strength
and her mentality.''
To summarize: 20 minutes after slipping an NCAA championship ring
onto her finger and one day after single- handedly destroying
Stanford with a 31-point performance, Wolters was verbally
scourging herself for her inadequacies.
Typical Wolters. In Minneapolis the first thing out of her mouth
upon seeing VanDerveer, her coach on the U.S. team in last
summer's world championships, was an apology. ``Sorry I didn't
write,'' she said.
One of the things that made Wolters attractive to Connecticut was
this willingness to recognize her flaws and to address them.
Between her junior year at Holliston (Mass.) High and her freshman
year in Storrs, she dropped 60 pounds. ``A lot of tall kids play
because they're tall,'' says UConn associate head coach Chris
Dailey. ``Kara plays because she loves playing and wants to be
Kara's father, Bill, recalls his daughter as a young girl
pestering him to come out and shoot hoops with her in the
driveway. ``She was always fighting the fact that she was tall,''
he says. ``Basketball gave her a sense of worth. It gave her a way
of saying, `You made fun of me, but I'll show you I have this
Bill, then known as Willie, was himself a center, under Bob Cousy
at Boston College in the mid-'60s, and had a cup of coffee with
the Seattle SuperSonics in 1968. Though roughly 100 colleges
expressed interest in Kara, her old man's alma mater -- the school
she wanted to attend -- wasn't interested. The Eagles have had
several chances to rue this decision, most recently on Feb. 19,
when Wolters blocked eight shots and grabbed 10 boards in 25
minutes as the Huskies squeaked past BC 86-34.
The fact that she is a self-starter and her own best critic has
failed to insulate Wolters from frequent blasts of Auriemma
invective. The Huskies trailed Tennessee 50-46 with 11:53 to play
when Wolters committed her fourth foul. During an ensuing TV
timeout, the coach put his right palm on the back of Wolters's
neck and spoke into her ear: ``Yesterday you helped us get into
the championship game. Today, you're helping us lose it. We're not
going to win unless you start playing better.''
Wolters would respond by becoming a defensive presence down the
stretch, but at the time Auriemma's anxiety was understandable. He
had no way of knowing that the Rebecca Lobo Show was about to
Before the Stanford game Auriemma had taken it upon himself to
have a chat with Lobo, who had spent the week collecting various
Player of the Year plaques. Do not, he advised her, attempt to
justifythe week's haul of hardware. ``Don't try to prove you're
the Player of the Year. Let the game come to you.'' And Lobo did
just that, scoring a quiet 17 points.
Now the situation was different. Lobo had scored but six points
and was down to the last 12 minutes of her college career. This
was not the time to sit back and let the game come to her. It was
the time to show 18,000 people at the Target Center why she was
the consensus Player of the Year. Like the voracious houseplant in
the musical Little Shop of Horrors, Lobo commanded, Feed me!
Her teammates did, and she took over the game. In rapid succession
Lobo scored a layup off a post-up move; posted up again, drove the
lane and hit a reverse layup; pulled up and drained an 18-footer
from the left wing; then nailed a 17-footer. On Tennessee's next
possession, Rizzotti made a steal and sailed in for a layup. After
being ahead by nine earlier in the half, the Lady Vols now led
58-57. Shaken, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt called timeout with
Up to that point, one of the championship's anticipated subplots
had not fully developed: the matchup between two of the
country's best point guards, Rizzotti and the Lady Vols'
Michelle Marciniak. As one might guess from Marciniak's lovingly
sculpted blonde bangs, her game has a few extra flourishes; she
is partial to spin moves and behind-the-back passes. Earlier in
her career her penchant for glitzy play often landed her in
Summitt's doghouse, despite the unusually strong bond they share.
Summitt, you see, went into labor while on a recruiting visit to
Marciniak's house in Macungie, Pa., four years ago. The coach made
her pitch, flew back to Knoxville, Tenn., and gave birth to her
son, Tyler, hours later. ``I called my mother, my mother-in-law
and then Michelle,'' says Summitt. ``She sent me flowers the next
day. Shortly after that, she called to tell me she was going to
Marciniak's decision was part parochial, part statistical. A
24-point-a-game scorer at Allentown Central Catholic, she wanted
to continue lighting up the scoreboard as a collegian, and she
thought she would have a better chance to do it under the Golden
Dome. Disillusioned after the Irish lost 17 games in her freshman
year, she transferred to Tennessee. Recalling that Summitt had
gone into labor in Marciniak's house, folks around Knoxville
wondered, Would the new girl rate special treatment?
Absolutely -- harsh treatment. Lady Vol assistants used to beg
Summitt to say something, anything, nice to Mar- ciniak before
practice ended. Once Marciniak got her showboating under control,
Summitt backed off.
Rizzotti's style is less ornate than Marciniak's. In the first
half on Sunday it was also less effective. In what she would
describe as ``one of the worst halves I've ever played,'' Rizzotti
had four points, three fouls and no assists.
Unlike the Lady Vols, she finished strong. After Summitt's
timeout and several missed opportunities by both teams, Elliott
sank a layup that tied the score at 61 with 2:17 remaining. Then
Rizzotti delivered the bucket on which the game turned. Gathering
in a long defensive rebound, she went coast to coast with
Marciniak right with her. An instant before she reached the
basket, Rizzotti crossed over to her left and sank a sweet,
lefthanded layup with 1:51 remaining.
``I should have tied her up or fouled her,'' Marciniak said later,
`` 'cause that got their momentum going.'' Indeed, the Huskies
never relinquished their lead.
There was a charming, unrehearsed flavor to UConn's championship
celebration.Uncertain of the etiquette of cutting down the nets,
the Huskies milled around the ladder. One asked Dailey, the
assistant coach, ``What do we do?''
Having snipped the last strand, Auriemma was attempting to descend
the ladder when -- despite his feeble protests -- he was
surrounded and borne away on the shoulders of his players. They
carried him off the court, into a tunnel, into history.