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Top-Seeded Huskies Coming of Age

March 17, 1999

STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ It’s been a long season for a team hobbled at times by injuries and inexperience. Coach Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies may be coming of age just in time.

The Huskies, top seed in the Mideast Regional, will settle in Cincinnati on Wednesday to prepare for Iowa State in the NCAA tournament round of 16. The team, ranked fourth in the nation, nearly didn’t make it. The Huskies survived a scare against Xavier on Sunday, securing an 86-84 victory in the final seven seconds on two free throws by freshman Tamika Williams.

Williams is one of two freshman starters for Auriemma, who also goes with two sophomores and a junior. Only senior Amy Duran has played in the Final Four, and so for most the tournament is new territory. He admits he has a lot to work with.

``This team is more physically gifted than any team we’ve ever had at their age,″ Auriemma said after practice Tuesday.

He started the season with the nation’s best recruiting class of forwards Williams, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, and guards Sue Bird and Keirsten Walters. Injuries, however, have whittled down the group.

Bird was lost at midseason with a torn knee ligament, Cash missed several games with a stress fracture in her right leg and on Tuesday suffered a mild concussion at practice. Walters started 14 games but has been day to day with a sore left knee. Starters Jones and Williams are growing into a dominating presence under the boards, and Williams has had to work through back problems.

Injuries weren’t limited to the rookies. Junior guard Shea Ralph, who missed her sophomore season while rehabilitating from a torn knee ligament, missed four games after she sprained the same knee. Duran broke her right hand and missed the final 10 games of the regular season.

Auriemma said the challenge with a young team is turning a group of talented individuals into a team and getting them to believe it takes more than talent to win.

``The frustration is getting them to listen, to pay attention,″ he said.

The close call against Xavier got everyone’s attention.

``It seems like when we’ve been in these situations before, we’ve kind of crumpled with everyone kind of looking at each other,″ Ralph said. ``We didn’t do that this time.″

Williams said when she saw some of her teammates struggling early in the game, ``I knew I just had to step it up.″

There have been some growing pains making the transition from high school, where Williams could usually breeze through the competition, to Connecticut’s nationally ranked program.

``You have to keep playing hard,″ she said. ``If you cruise, you get exposed by players who may not have as much talent but are playing harder than you.″

Auriemma said he hoped the Xavier nail-biter delivered the lesson that ``as long as there’s time left on the clock, we have a chance to win.″

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