ATLANTA - Diana Taurasi ended her junior season the same way she started it - as a champion.
The national player of the year scored 17 of her game-high 28 points in the second half Tuesday night, as Connecticut earned its second straight NCAA championship and third in the past four years with a hard-earned 73-68 victory over Tennessee at the Georgia Dome.
"Last year was great," Taurasi said. "But we came into this season with no expectations and a lot of new faces."
It was the fourth championship for the Lady Huskies (37-1) and coach Geno Auriemma, who are closing in on Tennessee's all-time mark of six, all earned by coach Pat Summitt.
The Lady Volunteers won their last title by defeating Louisiana Tech in 1998. They have now lost to Connecticut in the championship game three times since 1995.
"I think, more than anything, this team is a reflection of all that's great in college basketball," Auriemma said. "What makes this championship special is because we had to beat the most successful college basketball program in the country."
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Taurasi are Tennessee seniors Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson, who closed out stellar careers without a ring to show for it.
Lawson expressed frustration and gratitude.
"Being at the Final Four three times in your career, it's tough not coming home with a championship," she said. "But a lot of people didn't expect us to get here. There's a bright future for the program, and I'm blessed to have been a part of it."
Tennessee never led in the contest, but threatened several times, including late in the game.
The Huskies shut Lawson down in the first half, limiting her to just three points en route to a 35-30 halftime lead.
Taurasi opened the second half by nailing a 3-pointer, and Connecticut used a 17-4 run which began late in the first half to pull ahead 47-34.
Lawson began to heat up for Tennessee, scoring 10 points within a 5:15 span as the Vols narrowed the gap to 67-62 at the 2:39 mark. She converted five of five free throw attempts during the spurt.
However, Tennessee could not get any closer, and Ann Strother scored four of her 17 points for the Huskies in the final two minutes to help seal the victory.
Lawson had a team-high 18 points and five assists for Tennessee, and Jackson added 15 points.
"Obviously, our team and fans are extremely disappointed," Summitt said.
"These two young ladies (Lawson and Jackson) - I want them to know how much I appreciate them. They've become like daughters to me. I know they're going to do great things after they leave here."
Reach Lane Kramer at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106.