0

UConn women win record 89th game in a row

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Having previously matched major-college basketball's longest winning streak, the Connecticut women ran a solo fast break into the record books Tuesday night.

With a 93-62 defeat of Florida State at the XL Center, UConn won its 89th consecutive game, a Division I record surpassing the 88 won by the UCLA men, coached by John Wooden, from 1971 to 1974.

The top-ranked Huskies (11-0) bolstered by a career-high 41 points from forward Maya Moore, have been so dominant during their run that the average victory margin has been 33.3 points. Only four teams have come within 10 points of UConn, and only one has shot at least 50 percent from the field.

UConn's last defeat came by 82-73 to Stanford on April 6, 2008, in the national semifinals. Many predict the eighth-ranked Cardinal will bookend the Huskies' streak when it hosts UConn on Dec. 30. If UConn does not lose then, however, it may go undefeated through the regular season as momentum snowballs toward a third consecutive national championship.

The overall college record is held by the women's team at Wayland Baptist University of Plainview, Texas, which won 131 consecutive games from 1953 to 1958. But that was decades before the NCAA began sponsoring women's basketball in 1982. It was a different game, played under different rules, at a different speed and a different level of athleticism.

Still, Kaye Garms, an all-American at Wayland in the 1950s who is now director of women's officiating for the Western Athletic Conference, said she saw something familiar in UConn.

"The desire is the same," Garms said. "They work hard and they work together."

Greg Wooden, a grandson of the legendary UCLA coach, who died in June, attended Tuesday's game and said his grandfather would have been "absolutely thrilled: to see the Bruins' streak broken by a women's team, especially on as unselfish as UConn.

Late in his life, Wooden said, his grandfather "thought the best basketball was played at the collegiate level, and it wasn't by the men."

This UConn team is hardly the best that Geno Auriemma has coached while winning seven national titles since 1995. The roster includes five freshmen, two of them, Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, starting at point guard and center. Perimeter shooting can be erratic. And there is sometimes too much standing around as teammates wait for forward Maya Moore, a two-time national player of the year, to grab the next rebound or hit the next shot.

But the younger UConn players are growing more assured and more deeply initiated into a culture that fosters confidence, unselfish play and demands unwavering effort.

Speaking about the Huskies, Bill Walton, the all-American center on those UCLA teams of the early 1970s, told The Associated Press: "They play with a great sense of team, great purpose, phenomenal execution of fundamentals, relentless attack. It is what every team should aspire to, regardless of the sport."

Terri Mitchell, the longtime Marquette women's coach, said after a recent defeat to UConn that she was most impressed by the psychology of the Huskies' dominance. They force teams to submit with a doggedness that is unyielding on both offense and defense, no matter the time, no matter the score.

"They expect they're going to beat you," Mitchell said. "They expect perfection." Few players in women's college basketball have been so reliable in pressured moments as the 6-foot Moore, who has played every game of the streak. She moves elegantly and stealthily without the ball. She nurtures her younger teammates to set the proper screens, to make the proper passes. And although she does not possess the same swagger as former UConn star Diana Taurasi, she does possess the same resolve to perform at her best in the biggest games.

"She doesn't take for granted that 'I was player of the year last two years,'" Mitchell said. "It's 'How can I get better?' She keeps her teammates involved. She's upbeat. Nothing bothers her."

At various times during this torrid streak, UConn has fielded the nation's top point guard in Renee Montgomery, the top center in Tina Charles and the top forward in Moore. There are two kinds of coaches, Auriemma is fond of saying: "Those who coach great players. And ex-coaches."

But his own imprint on the title seasons at UConn cannot be overestimated. Born in Italy, schooled in basketball in suburban Philadelphia, Auriemma, 56, coaches with sarcastic humor, candor and the same commitment to greatness and pre-eminence as Wooden at UCLA.

Routinely, UConn schedules the toughest women's teams in the country. Practices are taken no less lightly than games. The Huskies practice against male players, sometimes five women against six men. Come game time, UConn is unfailingly prepared. Great teams do not stumble into history, Auriemma has admonished his players in recent days.

"We lose every day," he said of his stringent practices. "We just don't like to lose when people are watching."

Nor does he like the criticism from some -- mostly male writers and commentators -- who dismiss the UConn streak as somehow unworthy, because women are supposedly less skilled than men, because the competition is supposedly insufficient.

He called these critics "miserable" and said they were angry because they "don't want us to break the record."

UConn's dominance has come at the same period in the development of the women's game as UCLA's did in the men's game -- 30 years after the NCAA began sponsoring a postseason tournament. As in many sports, a dynastic champion has long seemed necessary for legitimacy and visibility.

What will it take to break UConn's stranglehold? A concerted effort, Auriemma said, not just one or two or three universities but a collective attempt to elevate the women's game, just as big-time football universities decided to challenge UCLA in men's basketball once administrators saw the possibility of victory and profit.

"Again, it's women's sports, so people aren't going to give it the respect it's due," Auriemma said.

He has a gut feeling, Auriemma said, that at some point this season, UConn's streak will end. That would not be a bad thing for a young team, he said. The most important goal is winning a national championship.

"Then they can start on their own thing," Auriemma said of the streak's inevitable end. "Until then, they're living on someone else's accomplishment. They're going to have to live up to that. That's not why you play basketball. You want to create your own stuff. We want to create something that belongs to this team."