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DESPITE LOSSES, UCONN LOOKS LIKE WINNER

Fans around Storrs aren't too happy with the perception around women's college basketball that their beloved Connecticut Huskies have an uphill climb in gunning for their fourth consecutive national championship. So what if they lost Player of the Year Diana Taurasi? It's the national title or bust.

The Huskies unveiled their fifth national championship banner Friday in Gampel Pavilion, politely nodded and winked to the 10,167 in attendance, then went about the business of dismantling the University at Buffalo, 107-40.

"Games like this sometimes bring out the best in us," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

They were led by the 20 points of Ann Strother, a Naismith Award candidate for Player of the Year. Junior Barbara Turner is one, too. And senior Jessica Moore. That's why a nice trip to the backwoods of Storrs immediately turned into a Maalox moment for young UB (0-1). UConn's lead went from 9-5 to 28-5 in the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee.

"There's so many great things that stand out about UConn," said UB coach Cheryl Dozier. "You can watch them on film and I've been to Final Fours where I've seen their teams in the past play, and until you're actually on the floor against them I don't think film truly justifies what they can do."

Which begs the question, why are the Huskies ranked No. 4 in the nation? If UConn is the fourth-best team in the country then who's No. 1, the Seattle Storm?

Offensively, few teams execute better than the Huskies, who usually finished off plays with backdoor cuts and layups. For the game, UConn shot a sizzling 64.2 percent.

"It seems like every single practice we're getting better and better," said Moore, who hit all three of her shots and finished with nine points and five rebounds. "It seems like it's all coming together right now.

"A lot of people are wondering if we can replace (Taurasi). We lost all five starters a couple of years ago and they picked us 10th. To be honest, I'm surprised they picked us that high."

Then there's the matter of replacing Maria Conlon with a freshman. Ketia Swanier is the first freshman to start at the point since Sue Bird in 1999-2000, and by the looks of it the position is in good hands for the next four seasons. Swanier distributed eight assists and didn't commit a turnover in 21 minutes.

And Swanier isn't even UConn's best freshman. That honor belongs to Houston, the career scoring leader in California high school history, the Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year and UConn's 11th player. She didn't play in the Huskies' second exhibition game because Auriemma wanted to send her a message. She responded with 17 points, four rebounds, four blocks and two assists.

"I have to continue to work hard and push myself even more," Houston said. "As long as I do, I'll get better. I don't want to have any mental breakdowns during the big games because that can cost us.

"It was better to get it out of the way earlier so that I could benefit more from it."

Obviously, UB, with six newcomers, wasn't a stern test. There will be some, starting Sunday with No. 9-ranked North Carolina at the Jimmy V Classic in Raleigh, N.C. And UConn has something to prove now that Tennessee, Texas and LSU are ranked higher.

"It was a good win for us, but you can't look at it and say, 'It's going to happen every time,' " Strother said. "We need to prepare the same way we did today for every game."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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