NEW ORLEANS – If there was one saving grace, one soothing thought in Pat Summitt's mind as she waved her arms and conceded defeat during the final seconds of another national championship loss to Connecticut – this time 70-61 – it was that she won't ever, ever have to deal with the likes of No. 3 in blue and white again.
Diana Taurasi, the great Diana Taurasi, would soon be victoriously punting the ball into the stands, bear hugging her coach and then, for the third consecutive year, climbing a ladder to clip herself a most fashionable nylon necklace.
The victory capped a remarkable career for the 6-foot senior, in which she didn't just dominate her sport but shifted the power of women's college basketball from the Appalachian Mountains to the New England woods.
Pre-Taurasi the Tormentor, Tennessee was tops. Now Connecticut is again champion.
"This is our run," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who watched UT win three in a row in the 1990s. "This is our time right now."
Much is made of Summitt and Auriemma's lack of a cordial relationship (Monday Auriemma joked that if his car broke down and Summitt offered a ride, "I would walk.")
Although Auriemma is a masterful coach, he didn't start owning women's basketball until Taurasi arrived and quickly learned the difference between being a great player and a great champion.
"It wasn't until she got to Connecticut and Shea Ralph kind of whacked her a few times and then everything changed for Diana," said Auriemma, who loved Taurasi's ability in high school but was unsure of her competitiveness. "She just turns it on like nobody I've ever seen."
Tuesday wasn't Taurasi's greatest individual performance, but she still was far and away the best player on the court. In addition to her team-high 17 points Taurasi made dozens of little plays and defensive stops, and provided the necessary leadership. In every big moment of the game, there she was.
She was an easy choice as most outstanding player of the Final Four for the second consecutive year.
"If it wasn't for the way Diana Taurasi is, the way she plays the game, the way she comes to practice, the kind of teammate she is, there is no way the rest of her teammates would be able to do what they were able to do tonight," Auriemma said.
During Taurasi's four years at UConn, the Huskies went 139-8. Yes, 139-8. Roll that around in your head for a second.
And while basketball is a team game and there is no question Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Ann Strother and others had a hand in this remarkable run, the straw that stirs the drink in Storrs is the woman they call "D."
Against Summitt's Lady Volunteers, for decades the definition of women's basketball, Taurasi went 7-1, including three victories in the Final Four. She averaged 20.4 points in those games.
How much has she changed the storyline of college basketball?
Consider that if it weren't for Taurasi, Summitt may very well have claimed her ninth NCAA title on Tuesday and all the talk would be about next year's assault on 10-time winner John Wooden. If Taurasi didn't exist the Wizard of Knoxville might be about to tie the Wizard of Westwood as college basketball's greatest coaching champion.
Instead Summitt is in the midst of a six-year title drought and stuck on a half-dozen championships, just one more than the hard-charging Auriemma.
Connecticut, meanwhile, is fresh in the mind of a generation of impressionable young girls. And Taurasi is the sport's mega-star, more popular among seventh-grade girls than the eighth-grade boys.
"Tennessee's been great for so long," said Taurasi, who ended the Vols' recruitment of her after just one phone call. "And as a little kid, that's the team everyone looked at. Hopefully now ..."
"We're the top program out there. I don't care what anyone says anymore. I don't care."
Maybe this all changes next season, when Taurasi is a professional and Summitt welcomes a heavily hyped recruiting class, headed by the dunking Candace Parker, to Rocky Top.
"I'm really excited about the talent (we're) bringing in," Summitt said.
"They just signed the first 15 players on the All-America team," Auriemma cracked.
So maybe Tennessee returns to the pinnacle of college basketball. Maybe Summitt returns to her throne as the queen of women's basketball.
"It's going to change for us," Auriemma admitted.
But not one moment before Taurasi the Tormentor, the great Connecticut champion, the rewriter of the sport, ran out of eligibility and clipped one final NCAA net.
- Diana Taurasi
- Pat Summitt
- Geno Auriemma