CONNETICUT ONE WIN FROM PERFECT SEASON

March 30, 2002 12:00 am

SAN ANTONIO (AP) One by one, theyve fallen, the mighty as well as the meek, all swept aside by the white and blue blur known as Connecticut.

Now, only Oklahoma, a program once on the verge of extinction, stands between Connecticut and a second perfect season.

Connecticut, unbeaten and for the most part unchallenged, will play the resurgent Sooners in the womens national championship game on Sunday night, a pairing that would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.

Its also a pairing that worries Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, despite his teams 38-0 record, despite how the Huskies overwhelmed Tennessee 79-56 in the semifinals Friday night.

It kind of bothers me, Auriemma said. Sherri Coale has them thinking they can beat us.

Coale is the intense, energetic coach who was hired out of Norman, Okla., High School six years ago to put some life into the Sooners. She has succeeded beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Oklahoma (32-3) reached the championship game for the first time with an 86-71 victory over Duke on Friday night.

In Coales first season, Oklahoma went 5-22. Twelve years ago, administrators at the school announced they were dropping womens basketball, only to reinstate it after a public outcry.

This is the moment weve all been waiting for to get to the Final Four and now were in the championship game, Oklahomas Rosalind Ross said in the locker room. When I came in here, I wanted to cry.

Connecticut has been through all of this before. The Huskies went 35-0 in winning the 1995 national title and won another championship in 2000 with a team that lost only once.

This bunch, though, is something else. The Huskies blend of teamwork, slick passing, shooting and tough defense sets them apart. With a victory, theyll make their claim as the best womens team ever.

They certainly looked it Friday night. Tennessee has won six national titles and is the most successful program in the country. Against Connecticut, the Lady Vols were in over their heads.

Just the way we took the game to a very good team, a very good team, Im really, really proud of my team right now, Auriemma said. Theyre a pretty special group and we played a pretty special kind of game.

Because of its dominance this season UConns average victory margin is nearly 37 points the national championship was practically conceded to the Huskies when the NCAA tournament started.

Oklahoma, though, isnt conceding anything.

I dont think anybody has shipped the trophy to Storrs yet, Coale said. If its all right with the rest of you guys, were going to go ahead and play and see what happens. So well be there Sunday night.

Connecticut hit Tennessee (29-5) from every direction. Player of the year Sue Bird and Asjha Jones each scored 18 points, with Jones grabbing 10 rebounds and Bird adding five assists and four steals.

Diana Taurasi had 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Swin Cash had 13 points, five assists and four blocks. Connecticut blocked 10 shots in all and held Tennessee to 31 percent shooting.

It was very shocking to see how we played, Tennessees Loree Moore said. We didnt get going into our rhythm and they took advantage of that. They just steamrolled.

No Tennessee player scored in double figures. Kara Lawson and Courtney McDaniel led the Lady Vols with nine points each.

Oklahoma broke Dukes 22-game winning streak by building a 14-point lead and then answering when the Blue Devils (31-4) made a run in the second half.

Out of synch and taking poor shots in the first half, Duke started getting the ball inside and drew to 64-62 when Alana Beard fed Michele Matyasovsky for a layup with 7:49 left.

Forward Caton Hill, usually overshadowed by the Sooners perimeter players, countered with a 3-pointer just 11 seconds later, and the run was over. Oklahoma went on to outscore Duke 22-5 in building an 86-67 lead with less than two minutes to play.

Hill put the dagger in us with that 3, Dukes Krista Gingrich said. We didnt match up out of the break and she nailed it.

Ross led Oklahoma with a career-high 26 points, including four 3-pointers. Stacey Dales added 17 points, Hill scored 14 and LaNeishea Caufield 12.

I knew the team would mostly focus on LaNeishea and Stacey, Ross said. I took whatever came my way. They left me open a couple of times and I stuck in some baskets.

Oklahoma played well against Connecticut during the regular season, keeping it close most of the way before losing 86-72. Now the Sooners get a chance to see what they can do on a much bigger stage.

It is going to be a tough game, Taurasi said. Its going to be a lot different than tonights game.

AP-WS-03-30-02 0348EST