ATLANTA - After Connecticut claimed its second NCAA women's basketball championship in three seasons last April, it seemed that the Huskies might have to live off that triumph for a while before returning to the Women's Final Four.
Sue Bird, then the top player in the nation, and three others in the starting lineup were on their way to graduation and careers in the WNBA.
"I did not think we would be back," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said Monday. "But Oct. 12 when practice started, it was business as usual.
"We are Connecticut and we need to be in the Final Four and we need to play for the championship and that's the way it is."
The Huskies were 39-0 last season and, as improbable as it once seemed, they almost put together another undefeated run to reach tonight's title game (4:30 AST, ESPN) at the Georgia Dome before a sellout crowd of 28,010.
The only smudge on this season's 36-1 performance was left by Villanova, which shocked the Huskies in the Big East Conference title game to end their women's NCAA Division I record 70-game win streak.
It will be the third time Connecticut will meet archrival Tennessee (33-4) in the championship game, after claiming victories over the Vols in 1995 and 2000. The Huskies also posted a rout a year ago over coach Pat Summitt's squad in the national semifinals.
Tennessee has a record six NCAA trophies, but has gone five seasons since claiming its last one with the stellar 1998 team that included junior Chamique Holdsclaw and a talented group of freshmen.
This Connecticut squad also has a group of blue-chip newcomers in 6-foot guard-forward Barbara Turner, 6-2 guard Ann Strother and 6-2 forward-center Willnett Crockett, who joined first-year starter Jessica Moore, a 6-3 junior center-forward who graduated in 2000 from Colony High School in Palmer, Alaska.
But it has been the consistent work of 6-foot junior guard-forward Diana Taurasi - who succeeded Bird in the national spotlight - that has carried the Huskies. Taurasi won this year's Naismith Award as the nation's top player.
The native of Chino, Calif., saved Connecticut Sunday night when she popped a 3-pointer to complete a rally from what had been a 50-41 deficit to Texas earlier in the second half.
After putting the Huskies ahead with 2 minutes, 6 seconds to play, Taurasi, who had 26 points in the game, also knocked a last-second attempt out of the hands of the Longhorns' Alisha Sare to preserve the 71-69 triumph.
"Toward the end of the games, I want the responsibility to be in control of the outcome," Taurasi said Sunday. "When there is an open chance to take the shot, I am going to take it. If I miss, I miss. If it goes in, it's great. I am not the type of person who would want to think later that I should have taken that shot. I can't be afraid."
Taurasi's no-fear attitude produced a 63-62 overtime win over Tennessee earlier this season in Hartford when she hit several key baskets down the stretch. Earlier, she hit a what-the-heck long attempt from behind the half-court line as the first half ended.
"It's exciting to see - not necessarily to go against - but to see a player like that in the women's game," Summitt said of Taurasi. "She brings a little bit different dimension because she is so very skilled and can play all five positions. They post her up. She can take you to the dribble. She is great off the screen. She can catch and shoot. She has NBA range."
Tennessee continues to offer a strong inside attack with 6-2 senior forward Gwen Jackson, who had 25 points and 11 rebounds in the Vols' 66-56 victory over Duke in Sunday night's other semifinal. She is helped in the post by 6-2 sophomore forward Shyra Ely, while 5-8 senior guard Kara Lawson runs the offense from the point.
Auriemma, who gained his 500th victory Sunday night, will try to avoid his 100th loss tonight.
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