Tuesday, April 7, 2009
A look back at the five unbeaten teams
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
Here's a chronological look back at perfection in the NCAA era of women's basketball.
1985-86 Texas, 34-0: Everything was set up for the Longhorns to win it all in 1985, actually, including home-court advantage at the Final Four. Texas' Erwin Center was the site of the event that season, but the Longhorns didn't make it there. They were upset in the Sweet 16, which was then their second game in a 32-team tournament. Western Kentucky's Lillie Mason hit a last-second shot to beat Texas 92-90.
This year's team celebrates previous UConn perfection, such as Diana Taurasi, who won three titles and was part of 2002's 39-0 squad.
Stung by that, the Longhorns were all the more determined to win it all in 1986, when they were led by players such as Fran Harris, Beverly Williams, Kamie Ethridge, Cara Priddy, Yulonda Wimbish, Andrea Lloyd, Annette Smith and sensational freshman Clarissa Davis.
The field was expanded to 48 teams that year, and top-seeded Texas had a first-round bye. The Longhorns were so good that after their 108-67 dismantling of Missouri in the second round, a group of reporters asked Tigers coach Joann Rutherford if Texas' next foe, Oklahoma, stood any better chance. Rutherford just smiled and shook her head.
The Sooners were steamrolled, too. However, Texas did get a scare in its regional final against Mississippi, winning 66-63. The Horns got their revenge on Western Kentucky in the national semifinals, 90-65, and then ended Cheryl Miller's college career with a defeat, beating Southern Cal 97-81.
1994-95 UConn, 35-0: The national notice that this team was truly something special came on Jan. 16, with a nationally televised 77-66 victory over Tennessee. Thus began a series that would define women's college basketball for the next decade-plus.
UConn was host to the East Regional that season and appeared all but set for a trip to Minneapolis and the Final Four. But there was one heart-stopping game on the way for the Huskies and their fans. That came in the Elite Eight, when Virginia played very well, but lost 67-63.
That four-point margin ended up as the closest game the Huskies would have all season. Once at the Final Four, they dominated Stanford in the semifinals, 87-60. Then came a rematch with Tennessee, and a senior class that coach Pat Summitt felt sure would win at least one NCAA title. But it didn't happen, as five Huskies -- Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti, Jamelle Elliott, Nykesha Sales and Kara Wolters -- scored in double figures in UConn's 70-64 win.
And the stories of UConn mania -- like the guy who saw Lobo getting a haircut and grabbed some of the hair when it fell to the floor -- became commonplace.
1997-98 Tennessee, 39-0: The team of three "Meeks" -- Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall -- was anything but meek as it rolled to its third consecutive national championship, with Kellie Jolly as point guard.
Holdsclaw also led the program to the 1996 title as a freshman, but the next season the team had 10 losses heading into the NCAA tournament. Tennessee finished in fifth place in the SEC. Still, Summitt believed her squad still had a chance to win it all -- and it did.
That set up an attempt for a three-peat, something that had never been done in Division I women's college hoops in the NCAA era. All was going as planned -- Tennessee won its first three games of the '98 NCAA tournament by 44, 20 and 32 points -- until the Elite Eight.
There, Tennessee fell behind by 12 points to North Carolina, and the three-peat looked in jeopardy. Tyler Summitt, then 7 years old, remembers tearfully asking his father, R.B., "Does this mean we're not going to Kansas City?"
It looked that way, but Tennessee rallied in the last seven minutes and won 76-70. And once in K.C., they pounded fellow SEC team Arkansas -- which had made it to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed -- and then longtime rival Louisiana Tech.
2001-02 UConn, 39-0: The push to this championship came when the Huskies lost to Notre Dame in the 2001 national semifinals in St. Louis, which prevented them from repeating after winning the 2000 title.
The 2001 team had lost Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova to injuries, and that ended up costing the Huskies in what was their third meeting that season with the Irish. Huskies followers will say the 2001 squad before those injuries was UConn's best team. But they never got the chance to find out.
Still, it was a powerhouse coming back for 2002, led by seniors Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams, with Diana Taurasi as a sophomore.
"We had a lot of talent, but I'm not a big believer in it's all talent," Williams said. "It certainly helps out. But I think we learned in practice handling pressure, a sense of urgency, how every possession is important."
The team was relentlessly efficient, and in perhaps its greatest display of dominance, it carved up archrival Tennessee in the national semifinals, 79-56. After that game, Summitt actually visited the UConn locker room to tell the Huskies what a tremendous team they were.
In the final, Oklahoma's undersized Sooners put up a fight, but UConn became the second team to finish a season 39-0 with an 82-70 victory.
2008-09 UConn, 39-0: The Huskies' first so-called challenge was playing fellow undefeated team North Carolina in Chapel Hill in a 1-2 matchup on Jan. 19, two days after UConn lost promising guard Caroline Doty to a knee injury.
The Huskies won that game 88-58. A week later, they pounded Louisville 93-65. And that more or less ended talk of challengers for UConn, until the Final Four. Stanford, the last team to beat the Huskies, was the opponent in the semifinals in St. Louis. The Cardinal had defeated UConn in the national semis in Tampa in the 2008 Final Four, but there would be no repeat of that.
Then, in the title game, the Huskies defeated Louisville again (after two regular-season victories over the Cardinals), and names like Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles could join those of players from the perfect teams of UConn's past.
"It helps that the players that [the media] brings up are still around, and they still support us," Moore said. "Those names are forever etched in UConn history.
"And we know that we're special. We have a special team. Each team at UConn is special no matter who they are compared to. But it does make it more special that we can be included with those great players and the great history."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.