March 2, 1999
By TOM CANAVAN
AP Sports Writer
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) – While the Big East Conference may be deeper, more talented and better than ever, Connecticut is still the best by far.
No. 6 Connecticut won its sixth consecutive league tournament and earned its 11th straight NCAA tournament berth by beating No. 8 Notre Dame 96-75 on Tuesday night behind a 25-point performance by conference player of the year Svetlana Abrosimova.
It was the eighth tournament championship for the top-seeded Huskies (27-4) in 14 years under coach Geno Auriemma.
“It’s unfortunate we don’t play for another 10 days,” Auriemma said. “I wish the NCAA tournament was this Friday. Give us a couple of days off and let’s go play. … I don’t know how you stay at this level for the next 10 days. I wish we could capture this and put it in a bottle.”
What made this title so impressive was it came in a year where the Big East had three teams in the Top 10 and many gave No. 7 Rutgers and Notre Dame a shot at replacing Connecticut on top.
“We are Connecticut and we play for championships,” said tournament MVP Shea Ralph, who had 19 points and 10 assists on Tuesday. “I love being in championship games, and that’s why I came to this school. That is the mentality of this school and the mindset of this team.”
This title might have been decided on Monday night when Notre Dame (25-4) lost starting point guard Niele Ivey to a knee injury in a 68-61 semifinal victory over second-seeded Rutgers.
Neither freshman Sherisha Hills, who started at the point, nor anyone else handled Connecticut’s relentless pressure on defense and its depth.
“I think not having Niele was the major difference in the game,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I don’t know if we would have won but we certainly would have played better than we did tonight.”
Auriemma didn’t argue that.
“It’s hard to play us at full strength much less when you don’t have a major star,” he added.
Starting three sophomores and two freshmen and getting solid contributions from 10 players, the Huskies never trailed after the opening moments. They led by 11 at the half and turned the game into a rout early in the second half with a 12-2 spurt Abrosimova ignited with a 3-pointer.
The 96 points were the most in a tournament final and the 21-point margin was third-highest in a title game. The Huskies won their three tournament games by a combined 80 points.
Abrosimova, held to 12 points in lopsided victories over St. John’s and Georgetown, was outstanding on both ends of the court. The Russian sophomore hit 10-of-17 from the field, had seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Freshman forward Asjah Jones, who starred at Piscataway High School, added a career-high 21 on 9-of-14 shooting. Ralph had 65 points in the tournament before fouling out with 4:17 to play. The Huskies shot 51 percent from the field, making 37-of-73.
Center Ruth Riley, the conference’s leading scorer at 17.1, led the Irish with 26 points. Sheila McMillen, who was forced to handle the ball more and therefore could not spot up for 3-pointers, added 13.
Notre Dame turned the ball over 24 times in losing to Connecticut for the second time this season for the 10th time in as many career meetings. The Huskies won 106-81 in December.
Ivey, who sat on the bench in street clothes, could have made this a lot closer. She had 19 points in a quarterfinal victory over Villanova and 16 points, six assists and five steals against Rutgers before being hurt early in the second half.
Without her, Notre Dame had little chance.
The Big East will probably get four teams in the NCAAs with Rutgers, Notre Dame and Boston College being invited.