- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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When I used to live in Virginia, my favorite part of the drive back home to the Midwest was going through West Virginia. The geography was striking and pretty in a way that made me think West Virginia natives would long it for when they left.
Talking to Connecticut guard Renee Montgomery, I inquired, "Gosh, isn't West Virginia a beautiful state? Do you miss it?"
"It's so weird that you ask -- because my family just came to our game in Pittsburgh," said Montgomery, who is from St. Albans, W.Va. "And I was telling them how I miss home. Although, up here, we have a great family atmosphere, and I'm never lonely. But at times, I think, 'Yeah, I definitely miss home.'"
Huskies Nation is certainly glad she relocated, though.
"The big thing she adds to us is she's our most vocal player. Unquestionably she's our leader, on and off the floor," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Everything goes through Renee. And it's been that way for quite some time now, not just this year. Her personality and how she conducts herself."
This fits at UConn, which has had all kinds of great players. It has two fabulous ones now in posts Maya Moore (18.0 ppg) and Tina Charles (14.7 ppg). But the greatest of great Huskies teams have been those with guard leadership that sets an unmistakable tone in every practice and every game.
"In all the time that I've been at Connecticut, our best teams have always been when we have two guards on the floor who are somewhat point-guard mentality," Auriemma said. "The ultimate was when we had Sue Bird and Diana [Taurasi] -- I don't think it's ever gotten better than that anywhere ever in women's college basketball.
"But what we have now is similar. It doesn't matter if Renee is handling the ball or playing off the ball. She's a playmaker who can score, and a scorer who can make plays."
The 5-foot-7 junior, who is averaging 13.4 points and 4.2 assists, has had the flexibility to fill both backcourt spots for No. 1 UConn as needed. And unfortunately, needs have changed and more has been put on Montgomery's shoulders because of the season-ending injuries to senior Mel Thomas and junior Kalana Greene.
Montgomery has played more as a 2-guard since Thomas was hurt in January, and even in that role she adjusts depending on whether freshman Lorin Dixon or senior Ketia Swanier is on the floor with her.
Losing two key players as UConn has would, of course, sink a lot of teams. And while it's easy to say it's not so bad because the Huskies have more talent on the bench than a lot of programs have in their starting lineups that's not entirely fair.
UConn still has had to deal with the emotional impact of seeing teammates hurt, and in the case of Thomas, having their college careers end prematurely. Plus like any team, the Huskies have to adjust to how those absences dictate what's now required individually of everyone else.
Montgomery said the coaching staff's full-speed-ahead, no-panic approach made it easier on the players. But the coaches would say that Montgomery has made it easier for them to have that attitude.
Part of it is that Montgomery is predisposed to wanting to communicate with everybody. That trait even shows in how quickly she took to the sign-language class she has at UConn.
"It's a fascinating culture," she said. "I can communicate on a basic level; I'm in my second semester of taking it. I just really got into it and liked it. One thing that's interesting to me is that deaf people don't want it to seem as if they are 'handicapped.' They can do everything hearing people can do."
Beyond communication skills, Montgomery just flat-out likes to be in charge and make sure every detail is covered. Auriemma said that at the end of shootaround before the Huskies' game against Marquette on Wednesday, Montgomery wanted to practice half-court shots. Assistant coach Tonya Cardoza told her that really wasn't necessary.
Then during the game
"So 3 seconds are left in the first half, we inbound the ball, and Ketia Swanier takes a half-court shot that hits the back of the rim," Auriemma said, chuckling. "And Renee ran past Tonya and gave her a stare like, 'Next time I say something, you better listen.' It's an illustration of how determined this kid is to kind of cover all the bases, make sure we're prepared -- even when it comes to something as silly as that."
UConn didn't need any half-court magic Wednesday, winning 95-63. But in a Big East that provides challenges beyond the expected one in Rutgers, who knows if some night the Huskies just might have to hit such a shot? Maybe against LSU (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) in their upcoming Big Monday showdown? Or perhaps in the postseason?
At least, that's the way Montgomery thinks: Be ready for anything. She knows what she's representing isn't just any college team. It's UConn, a program characterized by full arenas and media swarms and the highest expectations.
One of the people she chats to about this stuff is someone who faces the same thing in a different place. That's Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle, a former high school teammate of Montgomery's at South Charleston.
"We talk usually at least three times a week," Montgomery said. "We keep up with each other because, I mean, she's on a top team, and you always want to know what the top teams are doing.
"But also we just check in on each other. Because although we're on different teams, we're still friends."
Montgomery also talks to Bird a lot. It doesn't seem to matter where Bird is on the planet -- even far away in Russia playing pro basketball -- the former UConn star is plugged into what the Huskies are doing.
"It amazing -- she always knows if we won or lost, who played well, everything that's going on," Montgomery said. "I feel like after you graduate at UConn, you still feel like a part of it. She and Diana keep us on track. Not in a 'bad' way. They never criticize, just give us encouragement."
Obviously, Bird and Taurasi would smile and say they know Auriemma doesn't need any help in the criticism department. He'll take care of that just fine by himself. But Auriemma joked in a Hartford Courant story last month that Montgomery didn't seem "afraid" of him, and that bothered him a little.
Montgomery laughed and said that's not entirely the case.
"Maybe I don't show it -- but sometimes I am intimidated by him," she said. "But I don't get down. I take criticism and know he's trying to make me better. Even if he's going crazy, yelling at me hard, I know he's really just trying to get a point across."
With the injury losses -- not to mention the career-long saga of "which" Charde Houston will be present from game to game for the Huskies -- steadiness from Montgomery is all the more critical for UConn in terms of making another run at a national championship.
Montgomery doesn't mince words about how the losses of Greene and Thomas affected the team -- "We're not as good as we could have been" -- and how the Huskies have to make up for it.
"We were a deeper team then, and things were easier," she said. "We're still a really good team, but we have to work a lot harder to try to be as good as we were before."
Montgomery's understanding of that -- without being unduly worried about it -- is also why Auriemma rates her contributions as being so critical to UConn's success.
"As much as Maya Moore and Tina Charles and everyone else have meant to our team," he said, "I don't know that there's a more important player than Renee."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Maya Moore and Tina Charles are the unquestionable stars at Connecticut. But no one's more important to the Huskies' success than ever-steady guard Renee Montgomery.