By Carl Adamec
It was scheduled as a game featuring two of the best women’s basketball team’s in the country. It became an event.
On Feb. 1, 2003, the unbeaten defending national champion and second-ranked University of Connecticut went into Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on unbeaten No. 1 Duke. The Huskies were riding a 58-game winning streak. The Blue Devils’ first sellout crowd of 9,314 was waiting for them. Five dollar tickets were being scalped for $100.
The hype was off the charts. The previous fall, UConn had lost recruit Brittany Hunter to Duke with Hunter’s family citing the value of a Duke degree. UConn coach Geno Auriemma kidded that there were just as many Duke graduates as UConn graduates working as waiters, only they worked at better restaurants. The week of the game, Auriemma called Duke’s famous student section, the Cameron Crazies, “overrated.” UConn star Diana Taurasi referred to them as the “Cameron Cronies.”
Duke was ready, with hundreds of students spending the night before the game in tents to be assured prime seats. Auriemma visited “Krzyzewskiville” after the Huskies’ morning shootaround.
“I did say to a kid at the tent, ‘You guys got to be nuts,’ ” Auriemma said. “He goes, ‘We’re smarter than you.’ I said, ‘How smart are you? You’re living in a tent to go to a basketball game.’ He goes, ‘That’s a $40,000 tent you’re talking about.’ ”
The Crazies were settled in an hour before game time. They called Taurasi, “Princess Leia,” which got a chuckle out of some of the Huskies. The chant of “Husky Women” didn’t go over so well, though. When Auriemma appeared the shouts of “Luigi. Luigi” (his given name) began. When the Blue Devils came out for warmups, it was deafening.
The only quiet came when a moment of silence was held for the seven astronauts who died that morning when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas.
Though three freshmen and two sophomores would have to play key roles, UConn had played in this kind of atmosphere before. Duke had not, and it showed. The Blue Devils were in over their heads.
And UConn had Taurasi and Duke didn’t.
“D has to make shots,” Auriemma said. “When she does, it’s like ‘Whew, everything is going to be all right.’ ”
Taurasi made a couple early, including a long 3-pointer right in front of Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. All Goestenkors could do was drop her head.
With the Huskies getting contributions everywhere and Ashley Battle neutralizing Duke star Alana Beard, UConn took a stunning 41-20 halftime lead. It was 51-23 with 14:16 left.
“We looked up at halftime and we were like ‘What’s going on?’ ” Taurasi said. “The beginning of the second half it got up to 28 and little by little we lost our aggressiveness. That’s when they started coming back.”
Auriemma picked up a technical foul with 13:29 left. Ann Strother picked up the only technical she would get in 143 games at UConn with 7:45 to go. After being fouled by Duke’s Sheana Mosch, Strother swung an elbow that maybe, just maybe, nudged Mosch, though she hit the floor like she had taken a left hook in the jaw from Mike Tyson in his prime. It was borderline embarrassing, but it was enough to fool referee Lisa Mattingly into making a call.
Duke pulled within nine with 4:31 remaining but Taurasi answered with two baskets and the Huskies went 6-for-6 at the foul line in the final 45 seconds to preserve a 77-65 win. As time ran out, Taurasi put her hand to her ear like she was talking on the phone and talked to the Crazies.
“Give me a call. Give me a call Cameron Crazies,” Taurasi said. “But it’s sad that Duke doesn’t have this every game,. This was a great atmosphere for them and to have it once a year is not fair to them because they’re a great team.”
Taurasi finished with 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Strother had a double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds) while fellow freshman Willnett Crockett had 13 points off the bench. Beard finished with 26 points, though 21 came in the second half. It was that effort by Battle, and another a week later at Boston College, that likely won her the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award.
The other final score: Auriemma 1, Cameron Crazies 0.
“He just loved doing that,” Strother said of her coach firing up the crowd.
UConn would go on to win the 2003 national championship though it did have its winning streak snapped at 70 by Villanova in the Big East tournament final. Duke reached the Final Four in Atlanta, but lost to Tennessee in the semifinals.
And Brittany Hunter? She would play her freshman year at Duke but suffered a serious knee injury she’d really not recover from. After the 2004 season, she transferred to UConn and finished her career in Storrs.
Ten years later, third-ranked UConn (16-1) entertains No. 4 Duke (16-0) tonight at Gampel Pavilion. Game time is 7 p.m.