ATLANTA - After winning the national championship last year, Connecticut lost its four senior starters but still had the one player it needed - Diana Taurasi. The fearless junior with the flashy moves proved that UConn could rebuild and still repeat: Taurasi ignored a sore back and ankle and carried the Huskies to a 73-68 victory over Tennessee on Tuesday night for their second straight national championship.
She always seems to be at her best against Tennessee, and she scored 28 points this time, displaying the poise and passion that made her the national player of the year and the Final Four's most outstanding player.
"She's cut from a different cloth. She's got a lot of Italian in her, God bless her," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, himself the son of Italian immigrants.
"I've never been around anyone who is just immune to the pressures of the moment and just lives in the moment and has such joy and passion for the game and shows it on every possession."
The Huskies (37-1) won this third title game between the nation's two premier programs, and it was mostly because of Taurasi, who became the leader on a team that started two freshmen and a sophomore.
She made 8-of-15 shots, including four 3-pointers. She scored on a floater in the lane, a backdoor cut and even threw in a shot left-handed as the Huskies capped a season of improbable success that included a record 70-game winning streak.
"Before the game coach said, `You guys have to rewrite history,'" Taurasi said. "We just did it together. No superstars, just blue collar. We just had to do what we were good at, and that's rebound, play defense and take care of the ball."
Even with Taurasi's brilliance, Tennessee (33-5) still closed with a rush after trailing by 13.
With Connecticut trying to eat up the clock, Tennessee ran off eight straight points to cut the lead to five.
Later, Brittany Jackson pump faked and then made a 3-pointer as she fell forward, cutting the lead to 70-66 with 1:01 left. Suddenly, the Lady Vols had life - even more so when the scoreboard malfunctioned and showed them leading 66-5. It was quickly repaired.
"We felt we needed to push the tempo and get some easy baskets," Tennessee's Kara Lawson said. "I definitely looked to push it a lot harder than we did the first half. I think that helped us offensively."
Gwen Jackson's layup drew Tennessee to 71-68 with 21 seconds left and the Lady Vols fouled freshman Ann Strother. But she made both free throws and Ashley Battle intercepted Tennessee's inbounds pass.
The Huskies moved the ball so quickly that Tennessee could not foul, and fittingly, it ended up in Taurasi's hands. She flung it into the stands at the buzzer - just as she did last year in San Antonio - and Connecticut began yet another victory celebration.
"She's the most amazing leader you could ask for, and she just took control," Strother said. "She made me feel like I had to come out and play."
If any more evidence was needed that Connecticut has supplanted Tennessee as the nation's top program, this was it.
The title was the fourth overall for the Huskies, who also beat Tennessee in the 1995 and 2000 championship games and now have beaten the Lady Vols four straight times.
Connecticut denied Tennessee and coach Pat Summitt a seventh championship, delivering a further insult to a program Auriemma had dubbed the "Evil Empire." Taurasi and Co. made sure it did not strike back.
"It was a very intense, tough, hard-fought game," Summitt said. "I thought our team controlled the boards, which I thought was going to be a key to the game. Unfortunately, we couldn't make the shots they did."
Strother finished with 17 points, and the other freshman starter, Barbara Turner, came up with 10 points on five tough baskets inside.
Maria Conlon, the spunky 5-foot-9 guard, contributed 11 points, six assists and four rebounds for the Huskies.
Those efforts brought another title in what should have been a rebuilding year from last season's 39-0 club.
Instead, the UConn machine just kept grinding out victories to become the third repeat champion, following Tennessee (1996-98) and Southern Cal (1983-84).
They finished with six straight victories after their winning streak was broken by Villanova in the Big East tournament final.
Tennessee, deeper and more experienced, got 18 points from Lawson, its gritty point guard. Gwen Jackson scored 15 and Brittany Jackson 13.
But when it ended, Lawson walked slowly to the bench with her head down, her career over without a national title. She and Gwen Jackson were the team's only seniors.
"I hurt for them, Summitt said. "I love Gwen and Kara. They're like my daughters. I know they're going to do great things."
Connecticut, on the other, might be on a championship roll. The Huskies have no seniors, so everyone is back next season.
"That's the hard part," Turner said. "We've got to keep winning because everyone expects it. They didn't expect it this year."
Ahead by five at halftime, Connecticut began to take control at the start of the second half, and Taurasi - naturally - was the key.
She started the half with a 3-pointer, Turner scored inside and Conlon hit a 3. Suddenly the lead was up to 11, and not even the thousands of orange-clad fans in the Georgia Dome could urge Tennessee all the way back.
Taurasi converted two three-point plays, one on a picture-perfect backdoor cut, to help keep Connecticut comfortably ahead. Her niftiest basket came when she drove the right baseline and made an off-balance, left-handed shot for a 65-54 lead.
"You've got to give Diana a lot of credit," Gwen Jackson said. "She has been playing that way all year. The key to anyone guard Diana is you have to bring a big ol' attitude. I think she got a lot of open looks and she knocked them down the whole game."
Just what the Huskies needed to win again.