UConn’s Shea Ralph Steals Show
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Her face bears the expression of someone on the playground whose lunch money has been stolen. Whatever someone is trying to take from Shea Ralph, she aims to get it back.
Top-ranked Connecticut cruised to its second national championship with such ease Sunday night because one of its players would never stop diving, swatting, snarling and shouting. With all this, Ralph somehow found time to get nearly every loose ball, make every deadeye pass, toss in every layup that her tenacity earned.
With the determination of a freight train, Ralph led UConn to a 71-52 victory over archrival Tennessee.
``I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything like I wanted this tonight,″ said Ralph, the MVP of the Final Four.
Ralph scored 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting and had seven assists, six steals and a block for good measure.
``We worked hard. We prepared ourselves,″ Ralph said. ``We came out with a vengeance. We came out like we wanted something, and we got it. And I think we deserve it.″
After sparking UConn’s 21-6 run to start the game, Ralph ensured there would be no letup in the second half. She started off with a layup and a double-clutch, driving jumper to make it 36-19, then picked off a pass and quickly set up Svetlana Abrosimova for a layup to give the Huskies a 40-19 lead.
She got free for another layup to make it 48-27, then ran a little give-and-go on the fast break with a bounce pass to Abrosimova for a layup that gave UConn a 50-27 lead with 13:31 left.
It was quite a performance for a player who missed the entire 1997-98 season with her second ACL injury to her right knee in as many seasons.
``I worked so hard the last two or three years ever since I hurt my knee,″ Ralph said. ``I love my teammates. I did it for them and I did it for my coaching staff.″
Her face, always contorted with a mixture of consternation and aggression, revealed almost as much as her relentless game.
``Shea Ralph is the hustle player of the year on that team,″ Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. ``She gives them so much energy. She’s a great leader by example.″
When she forced a jump ball, she pumped her fist wildly. When she attacked the basket for a jump-stop and jumper, she screamed, flexed her biceps and grabbed any teammate who would dare share her viselike embrace.
When UConn blitzed Tennessee with a 21-6 run to start the game, Ralph was in the middle of every scrum. She seemed to have her hands on every loose ball, her face in every Lady Vols player’s personal space. A fan watching basketball for the first time might have assumed that the goal of No. 33 was to rub her elbows on every inch of the court _ then get up and scream like a professional wrestler.
Boy, was it effective. Ralph came up with four steals and forced at least three jump balls in the first half alone. She turned Tennessee’s offensive gameplan into a mosh pit _ with herself in the middle of it.
Fittingly, Ralph was one of the first to dive into the ultimate mosh pit when it was over. She tackled Sue Bird, UConn’s little point guard, as the Huskies celebrated.
``I don’t know if I’ve seen us play this well all year,″ Ralph said. ``We got the ultimate prize.″
With Ralph causing chaos on the perimeter, interior and everywhere in between, the Lady Vols missed 18 of their first 20 shots. She flopped on the floor to force a jump ball and pumped her fist, then poked the ball away again leading to Kennitra Johnson’s layup for a 17-6 lead.
With UConn leading 21-8, Ralph committed a smart foul on April McDivitt when she noticed that the 6-foot-2 Gwen Jackson had a mismatch on Sue Bird, who is 5-foot-9 standing on a phone book. McDivitt made both free throws, but it was just another example of Ralph’s determined, cerebral play.
Though she had three fouls at halftime, Ralph was 3-for-4 for seven points, had four steals, a block and three assists as UConn led 32-19.
The knee injuries and medical redshirt season have kept her around Storrs so long that the running joke around women’s basketball is, ``Shea Ralph is still at Connecticut?″
You bet she is. And she’s only a junior. She’ll be back for more floorburn next year, and probably can’t wait.