King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Diana Taurasi leads UConn to an encore championship. Her best legacy would be dynasties like that fading away. Plus: Notre Dame and race -- the readers write.


Salon Staff
April 7, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

The nice thing about Wednesday will be that the University of Connecticut isn't going to win any basketball championships, so that'll be a little variety for you.

One night after the UConn men won the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio, the UConn women did the same thing in New Orleans, beating Tennessee 70-61. It's the first time two teams from the same school have pulled off winning the national championship in the same year. Before this week, no school that's sent two teams to the Final Four in the same year has ever come away with even a single title.

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Tuesday's game started out looking a lot like Monday's, with a little back and forth preceding UConn going on a run for a big lead. The Huskies, up 10-8, went on a seven-minute, 20-5 run thanks mostly to atrocious shooting by the Lady Vols, who couldn't throw a dime in Lake Pontchartrain. And against Diana Taurasi and company, the Vols were looking at a huge, 30-13 hill.

So they went on an 11-0 run in the last six minutes of the half, then scored the first bucket after the break for 30-26. Pat Summit's teams don't just go away. But every time Tennessee got close, UConn answered, and it wasn't just Taurasi, the nation's best player, taking over the game. Jessica Moore scored some big baskets inside. Barbara Turner made some nifty moves in the post to hit a couple. Four Huskies had between 12 and 17 points.

Taurasi, playing her last college game before a tryout for the national team and a likely first pick in the WNBA draft, was more efficient than spectacular. She scored 17 on 6-of-11 shooting, three rebounds, two assists. There were no highlight-reel plays, no no-look, behind-the-head passes. She was part of a team that was calmly going about its business of winning a third straight championship. She almost seemed to be holding back a bit, though in reality that was probably the tough Tennessee defense.

Taurasi will be missed in the college game -- and welcome in the struggling WNBA -- because she's that rare athlete these days who's fun to watch because she seems to be having a good time. She grew up idolizing Magic Johnson and it shows. There's a joie de vivre to her game, and to her approach to everything that goes with playing the game, that's all too often missing.

In the immediate aftermath of UConn's victory, with the celebration in full swing, Taurasi, arms draped around teammates, was asked by ESPN's Doris Burke to describe what her four-year, three-title run at UConn had been like. "I was more excited about your hairdo," she said with a laugh.

Most elite athletes have learned by ninth grade how to dispense bland, say-nothing quotes, and Taurasi can do that. But she's also willing to joke around and act like an idiot in front of the cameras. It's hard to convey how rare and refreshing that is if you haven't spent much time around big-time athletes. It's nothing compared to a single spectacular pass, but it's not nothing.

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It was also refreshing to see a bunch of teams with a legitimate chance at winning the Tournament, great to see LSU and Minnesota in the Final Four. ESPN studio hosts Rece Davis, Nell Fortner and Stacy Dales-Schuman agreed this was the best Tournament ever. I haven't watched enough women's Tournaments and couldn't watch enough of this one to know if they were just shilling for the product, but what I saw was plenty good.

More teams being able to compete at the top level, a shrinking of the gulf between the powerhouses and everybody else, a reduction in 98-43 games between ranked teams, these are all signs that slowly but surely the talent level is rising in women's college basketball.

Connecticut and Tennessee have now won eight of the last 10 national championships. The next step in the maturation of the game would be an end to their twin dynasties, just as the end of UCLA's grip on the title signaled the maturation of the men's game 30 years ago. If the ending of the Taurasi era brings us closer to the day when the usual suspects aren't lining up for the title yet again, then it's good to see her go.

First things first, though. Let's see if we can get through a day without UConn winning a Tournament.

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Hornung, Notre Dame and race: The readers write [PERMALINK]

What a horrible time of year this is. What with the NCAA Tournament and the start of the baseball season, there simply hasn't been time for me to publish your letters. What this means is that I have to write my own column every day! It's awful!

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Well, I can wait no longer to slack off -- er, let you readers' voices sing. We'll get to some other recent topics next week, but I want to let you have your say about Paul Hornung's comments last week that Notre Dame has to lower its academic standards in order to return to football glory because "we must get the black athlete if we're going to compete." Hornung later apologized.

C.D. Goodison: Hornung's comments were not hateful? I beg to differ. I don't care what his intentions were or how swell a guy he is, his comments are hateful to me, but maybe you'd have to live in my black skin to understand that.

King replies: I understand it. You have a right to feel that way. But I'll stand by my statement. I didn't write that Hornung's comments weren't hurtful. Or that it's wrong to hate him for saying them. I wrote that they weren't hateful. I think there's a difference.

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A person can say something that offends people without hating them. I doubt there's a living adult who hasn't done it.

Nathan Lundblad: You invoke Duke and Stanford as examples of schools with high academic standards that can field competitive teams, yet the competitive teams they field are basketball teams. Hornung's obviously talking about football teams. You're sneaking in a cheap one here, as fielding a quality b-ball team is light-years easier than fielding a competitive football team.

I mean, look at all these little Jesuit schools, competing [in basketball] year in and year out, with good academic standards. Getting a football team fielded at these schools would be next to impossible.

King replies: It's true it takes fewer athletes to field a basketball team than a football team, but -- much as I hate to correct anyone who bad-mouths Stanford -- the Cardinal have fielded some pretty good football teams over the years.

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Jim Bartle: Hornung didn't say anything that lots of college football people haven't said many times. His mistake was to come out and say "blacks" rather than use the euphemism others have used: "speed." As in, "We (Nebraska in the early '90s, for example, when they couldn't beat Florida State) need more speed to compete at the top level." It means the same thing, since it's conventional wisdom that blacks are faster.

Another point I've read that you didn't mention is the plodding offense Notre Dame has been using. It's a Catch-22: They don't attract dynamic athletes because of their conservative offense, and they can't run an exciting offense because they don't have the athletes to pull it off.

Jeff Haas:Although I disagree about lowering academic standards for the sake of football players, Paul Hornung is certainly right about the role of black athletes on successful football teams. You, my local paper and many other media cited the total number of players of each race on a team. Who the hell cares about the third-string guys? Let's count the number of starters of each race in the top 20 programs in the country. Now you tell me where the numbers fall. Strength, speed, quickness and power seem to be a gift that black athletes seem to have been blessed with more generously overall. When are we going to stop pretending that we all are created equal? There certainly are exceptions but I don't think you'd see so many white guys taking steroids and other growth drugs if there wasn't a difference.

Curtis Crowson: If Notre Dame wants to get better at football they have to do one of two things: Reduce standards or increase standards and university prestige. There is no room in the middle. The nation produces many top athletes and many top students but it doesn't produce many top student athletes. So a top student athlete can choose any school in the nation. Being good students means they value education so they are going to go to the best school that has a good sports program. This is where Stanford cleans up.

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So to survive you either have to appeal to the kids that can go to Stanford or you have to accept the great athletes who are poor students. You certainly can't compete if you don't let in these basically semi-pro players and also can't out-recruit Stanford. That seems to be the position Notre Dame is in.

Mark Paul: I saw a quote from one Notre Dame alumnus, can't recall his name, who was dead set against lowering standards because he didn't want his degree devalued. There are enough good players with academic ambitions to fill the Stanford and Notre Dame rosters. And only Notre Dame has a national TV contract.

King replies: Current Irish receiver Rhema McKnight, who is black, spoke out against lowering academic standards, saying, "If this university were to do that, it would devalue its name as a whole." Former basketball great Austin Carr, now a TV analyst for the Cavaliers, also said he was offended by Hornung's remarks. "I get tired of the assumption that black athletes don't have the same mental capability as white athletes," said Carr, who is also black. He struggled academically as a freshman at Notre Dame but ended up on the dean's list. "Maybe you haven't had the opportunity to go to a school that prepared for the next level, but that has nothing to do with brain power."

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