Driving Force Guard Diana Taurasi's gender-bending game and relentless style had UConn streaking toward a record

Jan. 20, 2003
Jan. 20, 2003

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Jan. 20, 2003

Driving Force Guard Diana Taurasi's gender-bending game and relentless style had UConn streaking toward a record

Diana Taurasi keeps doing astounding things, and Connecticut keeps
winning basketball games, and everywhere the junior guard goes
she hears the same thing. You play like a man. Which leads to a
question: Does she take that as a compliment?

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2003 issue

On a recent evening Taurasi is driving her well-traveled 2000
Ford Explorer with fellow junior guard Morgan Valley along the
winding and dark roads of Storrs, Conn., heading out on a rare
night off. It is just five days after the pulsating, nationally
televised game against Tennessee in which Taurasi sank a 60-foot
shot at the end of the first half, buried a three-pointer to
force a tie in regulation and scored the winning points in
overtime, giving No. 2 UConn its 51st straight victory, three shy
of the NCAA women's record set by Louisiana Tech in the early
1980s. For games and practices Taurasi's every hair is plastered
back tight and held in a softball of a bun, locked into position
with a quarter bottle of Rave. But now her hair is down, long and
straight and shiny, like the hair in an ad for a shampoo.

"Whaddya think, Mo?" Taurasi asks Valley. "Somebody says, 'You
play like a man.' Compliment?"

Mo knows. She knows that Taurasi's childhood heroes were MJ and
Magic, not Cynthia Cooper, not Lisa Leslie. She knows Taurasi
claims to have read only one book first page to last--Wooden: A
Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court, by
John Wooden. She knows that Taurasi came from the town of Chino,
in sunny Southern California, to the icy Storrs campus not
because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great Lady
Huskies who helped bring two national championships to UConn
before she got there but because in the cozy Nutmeg State,
Huskies basketball is Showtime, for the men's and women's teams.

Valley, a shy Vermonter, raises her voice above the rap on the
car radio and says, "When they say, 'D plays like a dude,' that's
the ultimate."

"You got it, Mo," Taurasi says. "You might get some girlie-girl
who says, 'You play like a man,' like they're saying, 'Why don't
you play in skirts anymore?' Please. You tell me I play like a
man, and I'll tell you, 'Hey, thanks.' The best players in the
world are men, so why wouldn't you want to play like them?"

The quality Taurasi shares most with, say, Michael Jordan is that
she hates to lose. For good or for bad she turns games into wars.
You can't readily see it, because she masks her attitude with
Magic Johnson's joie de basketball. Still, chances are good that
you will lose to Diana Taurasi in HORSE, or in arm wrestling, or
in John Madden 2003 PlayStation football. Pretty much, you're not
going to beat her at anything. Connecticut is 85--3 since
Taurasi's arrival in the fall of 2000.

In the light of a parking lot you can see a few fine scars on her
long face, legacies of a childhood spent outdoors. Her father,
Mario, a machinist, was born in Italy and raised in Argentina.
Her mother, Liliana, a Sizzler's waitress, was born and raised in
Argentina. Diana was born in California. Her Spanish, the
language of her parents' home, is fluent. Her English is

"I'm not saying some of these men are the smartest guys in the
world," she says. "You got some guy, he's not even starting on
his college team and he's like, 'I'm going League.' 'Oh,
yeah--the NBA is just waitin' on you.' Ridiculous confidence. But
then the girls are just the opposite. Some girl will say to me,
'Your shot is so perfect, what camps did you go to to learn it?'"

Taurasi's in-traffic jumper is textbook: elbows in, shoulders
square, hands high, John Wooden stuff. "Camps? No camps," she
says. "Driveway basketball, playing against the boys, watching
Magic and Michael."

One of the methods of her coach, Geno Auriemma, is to have his
women play against men. Every year he assembles about a dozen
male students--some former high school players, most fast and
strong, several quite tall--and has them scrimmage against the
women. The women are better. Taurasi, by far, is the best. "She
dominates you," says practice player Chris Strother. "You get a
hand on her shot, she has enough strength to get the ball up some
other way. Underneath the boards she beats on you."

Taurasi is at least an inch shorter than her listed six feet. At
170 pounds she's 10 pounds lighter than in her senior year of
high school. She has thick legs, thick arms and a perpetually
sore right ankle about which she never complains.

She's not fast. Her touch, though, is spectacular. At week's end
she was shooting a stellar 36.5% from three-point range and 51.5%
from the field and had made 84.1% of her free throws. She's so
strong, she makes fadeaway and off-balance jumpers in ways you
seldom see women do. Her head is strong too. "Coach does most of
his screaming at Diana, because he knows she can challenge the
other players," Strother says. "She's chill with it. She knows
what she has to do."

What Taurasi has to do is carry a team that has no seniors. Last
season, the Huskies won all 39 of their games and took the NCAA
title. Going into this season, Taurasi was the only returning
starter. The 2002--03 Huskies, though lumbering and
inexperienced, won their first 11 games, against mostly
submissive teams.

Then came Jan. 4, at the Hartford Civic Center, and their first
real test, against Tennessee. The teams were tied at 26 with two
seconds left in the first half when Taurasi let loose a shot from
beyond half-court. She holed the bomb. "Look at that," Taurasi
says, watching a tape of the game in the tidy four-bedroom
apartment she shares with three other players, locker room
nameplates above their bedroom doors. "Elbows in. It was not a
crazy fling. It was a shot."

She had the ball again with nine seconds left in regulation and
the Huskies trailing by three. She was falling backward, getting
herself into three-point territory, when she let the ball go.
Draino. She began thumping her chest, euphoric. "I celebrate,
like Magic," she says, providing her own commentary over Lisa
Leslie's on CBS. "I want the ball, like Michael." In overtime,
with UConn down 62--61, Taurasi drove the lane, stopped and
swished the game-winner, a 10-foot leaner with 51.6 seconds left.

Four days later came another test, back at the Civic Center,
against Rutgers. Taurasi played 38 minutes and scored 24 points.
Though UConn won 67--62, the game felt like a loss. Afterward
Auriemma was fuming. "We won because we have Diana and nobody
else does," he said. "Our press offense would be really good if D
could inbound the ball to herself."

On Sunday afternoon, keyed by Taurasi's 18 points, Connecticut
extended its streak to 53 with a 69--57 victory over Virginia
Tech, on campus, at Gampel Pavilion. With a game scheduled at
Seton Hall on Jan. 15 and a matchup with Georgetown at the Civic
Center on Saturday the Huskies were now two victories away from
setting the women's mark. Four games after that, on Feb. 1, looms
a showdown with No. 1 Duke.

The prospect of breaking the record didn't seem to mean much to
Taurasi. The winning streak she is interested in belongs to UCLA
and dates back to the early 1970s, when the Bruins' men's team,
coached by Wooden, won 88 straight. "Now that's playing," she
says. "That's a streak." To Diana Taurasi, that's not the men's
record. It's the record. It's the one she wants.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN TOUGH 'TUDE When foes overplay her sweet jump shot, Taurasi goes inside, and always her eyes say, I hate to lose.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: GONZALEZPHOTO.COM Nicole Powell

Elevating the Game

Connecticut's hard-charging Diana Taurasi is setting the standard
in women's college basketball with her all-out style and her
shooting touch. Here are four other players who are raising the
level of play in the sport, and the ways in which they're doing

ALANA BEARD, F-G, Duke DEFENSIVE INTENSITY: The 5'11" junior has
used her 76-inch wingspan to become the game's most smothering
defender and deftest pickpocket.

LAURIE KOEHN, G, Kansas State RANGE: The 5'8" sophomore, who's
shooting a giddy 44.1% from beyond the arc, is so feared when
firing treys that defenders pick her up at half-court.

SHAWNTINICE POLK, C, Arizona FORCE: The agile 6'5", 235-pound
freshman is the Shaq of the Pac10. Polk scores (18.5 points per
game), rebounds (11.7), passes (3.7 assists) and dominates.

NICOLE POWELL, F, Stanford ALL-COURT SKILLS: The 6'2" junior is
queen of the triple double, owning six of the 12 in PAC-10
history. --Kelli Anderson

"You tell me I play like a man, and I'll tell you, 'Hey, thanks.'
Why wouldn't you want to play like one?"