Commentary

Moore, Auriemma an unbeatable team

What does the only team to win 89 in a row have that nobody else has? Maya and Geno

Originally Published: December 21, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- One is a lightning rod who never met a truth he wasn't willing and even eager to share or a bear he wasn't willing to gleefully poke. The other carries herself with a smooth and stately grace rarely associated with a sport of sweat and sharp elbows.

Together they've taken a program already at the pinnacle and somehow climbed still higher.

And, yes, like John Wooden and Bill Walton before them, what Geno Auriemma and Maya Moore continue to accomplish will stand the test of time and the controversy of challenge.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma, Maya Moore
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesWhat did the only team to win 89 games in a row have that no other team had? Geno Auriemma and Maya Moore.

Almost from the outset, Tuesday night was more about the theater of history than the drama of the moment. Florida State acquitted itself better than many opponents over the past two-plus seasons, but playing in front of a sellout crowd in a festive mood, Connecticut claimed a double-digit lead inside the game's first five minutes and rolled to a 93-62 win.

Whether the program's 89th consecutive victory represents a new record or a continuation of the mark the Huskies set last spring for the longest winning streak in the history of Division I women's basketball is entirely up to the judgment of the individual observer. At least in the case of one opinion-maker with daughters interested in sports, President Barack Obama, it merited a congratulatory phone call to Auriemma after the game. But others will remain skeptical or hostile, as is their right.

What is not up for debate is the simple math that no team in Division I basketball, men's or women's, has ever won more games in a row.

"It takes a group of people who are highly invested, unselfish, who do more than just what's required, do more than work together on the court," Moore said. "We're a group of people who are constantly around each other and look out for each other and care about each other off the court as well. This is a family, and that's how we treat it. We hold each other accountable. We will confront each other when we need to be confronted. We argue just like sisters do, and we'll also go to war for each other just like sisters do."

The continuity of that philosophy is how the Huskies have been able to maintain their success across basketball generations, both in the seven national championships won under Auriemma's watch and during the roster turnover of this streak. Connecticut earned win No. 89 with just one player who was in the starting lineup for win No. 1. Of course, it's no coincidence that one player is Moore. And intentional or not, it was entirely fitting that Auriemma left her on the court for every bit of the game's first 38 minutes and 11 seconds, eschewing even the handful of minutes of rest she might get in a normal game. In so many ways, this is her streak and this was her night.

Moore is not the only star to contribute to this run, a reminder of which came in the form of the ovation that greeted a video-board shot of Tina Charles sitting behind the team's bench (and which would surely have greeted Renee Montgomery had she been able to attend). But Moore has always been the one who rose above the game, who didn't just do things better than her opponents but did things no opponent has ever done. She did it again this night with a career-high 41 points, hitting 15 of 24 shots from the field and 10 of 11 shots from the free throw line -- and leaving Seminoles coach Sue Semrau smiling and shaking her head after the game at the memory of a change of direction so quick and so explosive that it almost took Moore's own feet out from under her before she calmly drained one of an almost endless parade of jump shots.

Connecticut didn't need Moore's best game to win. She ensured that by delivering it.

"Nothing that Maya does surprises me," Auriemma said. "Not since her freshman year here, not since her first practice. There's something special about that kid. She has an ability to rise to the occasion. Tonight would have been very easy to be so hyped up that she would not be able to play. And instead, she's just one of those great athletes who is able to block everything out except what's important -- 'My team needs me to do this tonight.' And she sets her mind to it and she does it. And she's been like that since the day she walked on here."

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
AP Photo/Jessica HillUConn didn't need Maya Moore's best game to win. But she delivered anyway, with 41 points on 15-of-24 shooting and by hitting all but one of 11 free throw attempts.

In the end, the real comparison point between the modern version of the story and the vintage one, which Walton joined 16 games into UCLA's streak of 88 consecutive wins, had nothing to do with gender, which has been repeatedly discussed in recent days. It was instead the role reversal between the one wearing the jersey and the one wearing the tie.

Moore would have been Wooden's perfect player, a selfless star with perpetual poise on and off the court. Walton surely would have found a perfect foil in Auriemma, much as the outspoken Diana Taurasi did for four years and three national championships. But like Wooden and Walton, Auriemma and Moore seek the same thing in their own manners.

And the same competitiveness that drives the stoic Moore to perfectionism pushes the sarcastic Auriemma in the same direction.

As Moore and Tiffany Hayes left the podium after speaking to the media following Sunday's win against Ohio State, escaping just before the rhetorical storm as it turned out, Auriemma rubbed his head and muttered something to the effect that their responses were so boring as to have put him to sleep. And as Moore continued to make her way out of the room, the standard array of postgame ice bags beginning to shed their weight while strapped to various aching body parts, the coach explained how going anywhere with his star was like traveling with the family pet -- the puddles left behind were evidence of her stay.

Moore offered no more than the hint of a smirk, well aware that for her, playing the coach's straight man is a role without lines. She has known this from the earliest days. Long before the streak began, before she even played her first regular-season game for Connecticut, she offered this assessment of the difference between being recruited by Auriemma and playing for him.

"I expected him to be hard on us and speak his mind and tell us what we need to hear," Moore said on that day three years ago. "It's a different side -- being coached by him is going to be different than being recruited, just the fact that he's getting on you more. I think I've handled it well, because I realize where he's coming from. It's not always what I want to hear, but it's great."

It is not the same relationship Auriemma had with Taurasi, the closest to an Auriemma doppelganger you can get for someone decades younger and the opposite gender. But it is one between a coach who knows just how special a player he has and a player who knows that she's better because of him. And so instead of teasing Moore, who is simply not quite as good a target for his barbs, Auriemma instead took a playful shot at Taurasi, who's playing professionally in Turkey, while simultaneously praising Moore.

"I don't care if [Taurasi] hears this or not, but she never won 89 games in a row," Auriemma smirked. "So if people start asking me now, 'Who is the greatest player ever in Connecticut history?' I'm going to say, 'Maya Moore.' And she's a lot nicer kid than that wise guy over in Turkey."

To be clear, since it now seems Auriemma needs subtitles in this new spotlight, he was kidding.

But there is some truth to the humor. What did the only team to win 89 games in a row have that no other team had?

Geno Auriemma and Maya Moore.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.