LSU 73, Connecticut 50 [women]

Tuesday, March 27th 2007, 7:34 am
By: News On 6

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ Bob Starkey cut up a net and handed out the pieces to his LSU players on the eve of the regional final.

``We told the kids that was a loaner until we got the real one tonight,'' he said.

Sylvia Fowles delivered.

She overpowered Connecticut with 23 points, 15 rebounds and an intimidating defensive performance that led third-seeded LSU to a 73-50 victory over the top-seeded Huskies on Monday night in the Fresno Regional final.

She capped her command performance by cutting down the real net.

``Every time I go to sleep I dream about cutting down the net and putting it around my neck,'' Fowles said. ``It paid off tonight.''

It's been an emotional month for the LSU players, who had to deal with the aftermath of coach Pokey Chatman's resignation March 7 amid allegations of improper conduct with a former player.

Under the guidance of Starkey and the play of Fowles, the Lady Tigers (30-7) are heading to their fourth straight Final Four. Tennessee, Connecticut and Louisiana Tech are the only other schools to accomplished that feat.

``I don't think a lot of people thought that we would be where we're going to be,'' Starkey said. ``We handled the adversity.''

Starkey, a longtime assistant for both the men's and women's programs at LSU, stepped in admirably. He has an undefeated record as a head coach and looks to end his career that way with two more wins next week in Cleveland. Starkey said he has no aspirations to become the full-time coach.

LSU will play Rutgers on Sunday, looking to advance to the championship after falling short in the semifinals the previous three years.

``This is more special,'' Fowles said. ``It's more special because our team really came together. We're playing our best basketball and we feel good about ourselves.''

Connecticut (32-4) will be left watching the Final Four for the third straight year after making it that far the previous five seasons. The Huskies' season ended with its most lopsided tournament loss since 1992 as they had no answers for Fowles.

``It's really hard when you have such a dominant post player,'' UConn guard Renee Montgomery said. ``She's so athletic. She can jump really high so they just throw the ball up in the air and have her go get it.''

With long arms, quick feet, and a 6-foot-6 frame, Fowles is an intimidating presence in the middle of the defense. She blocked six shots, altered many others, had three steals, deflected passes and forced the Huskies into bad shots and turnovers.

The two players Fowles guarded most often _ Tina Charles and Kaili McLaren _ each went 0-for-5 from the field. UConn shot just 33 percent overall.

``I had a little swagger under my belt tonight,'' Fowles said. ``I wanted to prove a point that we can hang with anybody.''

Fowles even showed off her passing skills with a pretty backdoor assist to RaShonta LeBlanc midway through the second half.

Fowles also got some help with some outside shooting from Allison Hightower and Ashley Thomas. Hightower hit three 3-pointers in the first half and Thomas hit a pair in the second after the Huskies cut LSU's lead to 12. The Lady Tigers led by at least 10 points for the final 26 minutes.

``Everybody always double teams Sylvia,'' Thomas said. ``We knew we had to come out tonight and knock down shots. I did it and my teammates did it.''

Thomas and Hightower scored 12 points apiece for LSU and Erica White added 11.

Montgomery led UConn with 17 points and Mel Thomas added 13.

``LSU exposed all the things we're not good at,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``We tried to hide it as long as we could. ... They made it a half-court game, and right now that's not one of our strengths.''

Fowles scored nine points during an 18-4 run early in the game to give the Lady Tigers a 22-10 lead. She outscored UConn on her own through the first 11:54, scoring 13 points to the Huskies' 12.

Hightower then hit a pair of 3-pointers during a 10-0 run that expanded LSU's lead to 34-17 with 3:46 left in the half.

Fowles had three steals and two blocks in the half and her presence inside helped force UConn into 13 first-half turnovers.

``When you think you have an opening it's not there anymore,'' Auriemma said. ``She covers so much ground she's able to defend not only her man but she's able to defend other people as well. I don't know if there's anybody we've played in a long, long time that poses those kinds of problems.''

Houston committed six turnovers, including a pair of travels early in the game with Fowles lurking nearby. The Huskies went scoreless for nearly 5 minutes during the 10-0 run.

UConn scored the final five points of the half to go into the break down 34-22 _ matching its biggest halftime deficit of the season.