Commentary

UConn's win streaks, then and now

Originally Published: February 28, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

2009 Champs & 2002 Champs Icon SMI/AP PhotoThe Huskies are 6-0 in NCAA championship games, including in 2009 and 2002.

If memory serves, the news came while an average Baylor team was beating a not-very-good Texas A&M team in a first-round yawner at the Big 12 tournament in Dallas.

It was March 11, 2003, and something had happened for the first time since March 30, 2001: UConn's women had lost a game. The buzz went around the press corps at Reunion Arena as everybody tried to be the first to tell everybody else.

LAWSON: 2001-03 MORE IMPRESSIVE

The games in this current streak have not been as competitive, at least from the final margins. This group has just been a cut above in every game. There was more of a struggle with the 2001-03 group. Particularly after the 2001-02 season, after Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams graduated, that team was still beating people, but it wasn't easy and it wasn't something you knew before every game. Every game, the Huskies were riding the back of Diana Taurasi, hoping she could carry them.

That's what's unique about this team. The Huskies have two legitimate player of the year candidates, the two best players in the country on the same team. You can't take both of them away, so you have to pick. Last week, Syracuse picked one, Tina Charles, but Maya Moore had 38 points and 20 rebounds.

And the supporting cast has always stepped up. The Huskies might not be as consistent as their coach would like them to be, but one of them always steps up. Kalana Greene has been very good this season, and by and large has played really well for UConn every game.

Talentwise, this season's Huskies are very, very good. So when you're looking at comparing these streaks, the talent of this season's team in the second year of the 2008-10 streak is much better than the 2002-03 Huskies.

-- ESPN analyst Kara Lawson

I think broadcaster Debbie Antonelli was there preparing for the next day's quarterfinal broadcasts … or maybe I only think that because it seems as if she is at virtually every game that's played.

Anyway, Debbie -- or someone who in my mind has turned into Debbie -- and I exchanged raised-eyebrows looks at the news that the Huskies had fallen 52-48 to Villanova.

Not "Oh, my gosh, is the world coming to an end?" looks. Not "I am too stunned to speak!" looks.

The news produced more a "Wow!" and a "How about that?" look and kind of instantly made the Big 12 tournament a little more interesting. The Huskies, defending national champions and winners of an NCAA-record 70 games in a row, were indeed capable of losing. Their victory streak was over. So somebody else, perhaps even the Big 12 champion, might win it all in 2003.

The Huskies had been very good all that season, after losing four starters who were each first-round WNBA draft picks. But many women's hoops observers kept thinking that a loss had to come. The Huskies couldn't be perfect again, could they?

A team couldn't lose Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams and then still do the same thing all over again the next season, could it? Well, that's what we thought. I had said a couple of times that season, "This is going to be the game that gets them."

I said it before the Huskies played Tennessee. UConn won 63-62 in overtime. And before the first time coach Geno Auriemma brought his team to Cameron Indoor Stadium to face Duke. Instead, the Blue Devils succumbed to some sort of strange stage fright and were pretty much blown out of the gym before they woke up. They rallied enough to make it respectable, but still fell 77-65.

So I stopped trying to predict a loss. Apparently, I decided, it's not at all a big deal to lose four outstanding players off what many consider the greatest women's college team ever. Apparently, as long as the one starter you have coming back is Diana Taurasi, and as long as Auriemma is your coach, you can't lose.

But I was wrong again: UConn did lose. The Huskies had shown some vulnerability, thanks to the Chinese water torture pace of Villanova. Now, our new mindset was that the NCAA tournament really was wide open and the Huskies might not be able to repeat.

Wrong again.

[+] EnlargeUConn Trophy
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyThe Huskies went 39-0 in 2008-09 and won every game by at least 10 points en route to their sixth NCAA title and third perfect season.

Feels familiar

So here we are, seven years later, looking at another UConn streak. This one is at 69 games in a row, with no end in sight. As was the case in 2003, the Huskies are seeking their second consecutive national championship. Unlike that time, though, UConn isn't a team driven by one transcendent player. This time, the Huskies have two.

There's an understandable inclination to try to compare the streaks, perhaps even to say which one is more impressive. That's like trying to measure one championship against another or one superstar player against another. There will almost always be good arguments on either side.

Some might give the nod to the current streak because it's generally assumed that there are more good teams with talent spread around the country now than there were seven years ago. Whether that's true or not, I would give the nod to the 2001 to 2003 run because of how the second part of that streak was accomplished: by a team that replaced four-fifths of its previous starting lineup.

There was no mystery about how UConn won the first 39 games in the streak: It had as powerful a starting five as has been assembled in the women's college game, and four of them were seniors.

That group already had won a national championship and, save a very uncharacteristic shooting struggle by then-freshman Taurasi in the 2001 national semifinal against Notre Dame, might have won another. The Huskies of 2001-02 were like an all-star team that had the advantage of being full-time teammates. They were supposed to win every game, and they did.

But the 2002-03 squad didn't have that luster or name recognition beyond Taurasi. It had a promising freshman class, of which two members -- Ann Strother and Barbara Turner -- ended up as starters.

It had a blue-collar guard in Maria Conlon who just laughed when Auriemma would say things like, "Well, she's short, but at least she's slow." It had a center in Jessica Moore who would prove her toughness throughout her stay at UConn, far from her Alaska home.

It had Ashley Battle, who excelled at coming off the bench but had talent that would have made her a starter anywhere else. She would do the nitty-gritty work that made her the Big East's defender of the year.

Taurasi was the show, equal parts talent and confidence, and she will tell you now that she thinks defense was as much a hallmark of her UConn teams as anything else. It's just that when someone like her is so good offensively, observers don't always look beyond what's obvious.

Early in the 2002-03 season, the Huskies had their danger moments. They played in a tournament in Hawaii in late November/early December and got pushed by host Hawaii and Oklahoma.

UConn was up by just two points at halftime, but Taurasi finished with 30 points against the Sooners in a 73-60 victory. (As if she hadn't done enough damage to OU in the 2002 calendar year; her NCAA title-game performance in March had been the final nail for the Sooners.)

Then there was the early January matchup with Tennessee in Hartford. Taurasi had 25 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in that 63-62 overtime victory. It was followed by games against Rutgers, Virginia Tech and Seton Hall in which the Huskies kept the streak going, but seemed shaky, winning by an average of just 7.3 points.

But then, bam, the window shut for opponents. UConn won its next 16 games in a row with only one margin closer than double digits. In its four March games coming into the Big East final with Villanova, the Huskies had won by an average of 19.5 points.

But Villanova coach Harry Perretta's Wildcats were able to ratchet down the pace to just a bit faster than comatose. Frustrated and perhaps bored out of their skulls, the Huskies were down 20-17 at halftime. It was the first time since the 2000-01 season that they had gone into the locker room at the break trailing.

It was one of those nights when Perretta's plan worked just as he imagined it could. So it kept one more trophy from going to Storrs. But the biggest trophy was still going to end up there that season.

[+] EnlargeDiana Taurasi
AP Photo/Daniel Hulshizer)After four starters graduated, Diana Taurasi led UConn to a 31-0 start in 2002-03. Then Villanova ended UConn's 70-game win streak in the Big East final.

The streak being over didn't really appear to be that big a deal to the Huskies players. Perhaps because there were four freshmen and four sophomores, so they either weren't part of the 2001-02 perfection or hadn't been key contributors then the way they were in 2002-03.

Taurasi would have seemed most likely, of course, to be bothered by the end of the streak. If so, she responded with aplomb. With so much of the team's success on her shoulders, she brushed aside her 13-point outing against Villanova as if it had never really happened. Thus began one of the great individual performances in NCAA tournament history.

She had 21 points in the opener against Boston University, 35 against TCU, 26 against Boston College, 21 against Purdue, 26 against Texas and 28 against Tennessee. The national semifinal game against the Longhorns, in which she scored a Jordan-esque basket as the Huskies rallied, might be considered by some to be as much her "signature" college game as any.

Not because it was her best game. But because in the most critical moments that night against Texas, somehow she kept getting it done. It was one of the few games that actually "felt" as if it had great potential to be a loss for UConn -- but still wasn't.

Everything coming together -- again

UConn lost four games the next year, Taurasi's senior season. Including a freakishly improbable loss in Hartford against Duke in which the only lead the Blue Devils had all game came with the final 68-67 margin on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Jessica Foley.

[+] EnlargeSue Bird and Diana Taurasi
AP Photo/Amy SancettaSue Bird and Diana Taurasi combined to make one of the best all-time backcourts in women's college basketball, helping the Huskies go 39-0 in 2001-02.

That game, however, was not a harbinger of things to come. When it was time for the Final Four in New Orleans, Taurasi still got it done, and she finished with three NCAA titles.

Then for the next three seasons, the Huskies had a series of what for them were disappointments: a Sweet 16 loss and two Elite Eight losses. And perhaps a lot of people thought the era of domination was over. Taurasi was gone. New (or renewed) faces such as Baylor and Maryland won NCAA titles in 2005 and 2006.

In 2007, then-freshman post player Tina Charles was schooled by LSU and Sylvia Fowles in the regional final. Then Tennessee was back on top, winning at the Final Four in Cleveland.

But later in 2007, a few big things happened. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt refused to continue her program's series with Connecticut. And Maya Moore, one of the prized freshmen of all time, arrived on UConn's campus, much to Summitt's chagrin.

The pieces of perfection had again been assembled. And although it didn't happen in 2007-08 -- Rutgers edged the Huskies by a basket in February, and Stanford outplayed the Huskies in the Final Four, although UConn was without injured Kalana Greene in both those games -- the path toward perfect was clearly illuminated for 2008-09.

Moore didn't have a "bad" game against the Cardinal in Tampa, Fla., (20 points, nine rebounds) but she didn't really have a great game, either, and that stayed with her. Like Taurasi, Moore has an innate sense of the moment, of how to somehow play better when you're already at what looks like the highest level. She hadn't done that the way she wanted to against Stanford, and it stuck with her.

For 2008-09, Moore was an experienced veteran despite being just a sophomore. And Charles was carrying somewhat of a chip on her shoulder, which she placed there herself after subpar NCAA tournament performances her first two seasons.

Auriemma, sensing she could handle it, announced the Huskies would go as far as Charles would take them. That said, he also knew he had senior point guard Renee Montgomery in the actual driver's seat.

Greene was back from her knee injury, and Auriemma had recruited two more talented guards, Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty. And even when Doty went out with a knee injury in mid-January, the Huskies didn't falter. It never even really seemed as if they had much to worry about, winning every game by double digits, including a revenge contest with Stanford at the Final Four semifinals.

Streak draws more criticism than praise

This current streak seems to bug more people in women's basketball, frankly, than the 2001-03 run did. Maybe because UConn appeared less invincible in that 2002-03 season. Maybe because people linked it more with Taurasi, who they knew eventually would have to graduate and leave, than with the "UConn way," which will continue as long as Auriemma is coach.

Maybe because the breakthroughs by Baylor and Maryland were seen as signaling the imminent end of UConn/Tennessee dominating the top of the sport. Maybe because people are frustrated that UConn's excellence is obscuring how much parity there really is beneath the top of the rankings. And that the Huskies are giving critics who actually don't watch the sport all the ammunition they could ask for to shoot from the hip in dismissing it.

Big Three
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonTina Charles (rear), Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore (right) combined for 61 points in the 2009 NCAA title game.

They can just roll their eyes, say, "UConn again," and suddenly they're women's basketball experts, right? Further, their "expertise" isn't usually articulated as, "Isn't it amazing what this program is doing?" but more like, "Ho-hum, UConn's too good for everybody."

Never mind that it was just two years ago that Tennessee repeated as champion. Or that Tennessee seemed to be similarly "suffocating" the game by winning three titles in a row (1996-98). Or that Baylor and Maryland did, indeed, do what they did to shake up the royalty, and that's not exactly ancient history.

Because UConn has been so dominant since the start of last season, it has been distilled by some into an indictment of women's hoops.

Last year's men's NCAA tournament was really no more competitive in terms of who was going to win it all -- North Carolina powered its way to the men's title the same way UConn did on the women's side -- but the fact the Tar Heels didn't have a perfect season created at least an appearance of "suspense."

And that's what seems the most egregious "sin" of these Huskies: They once again appear to be robbing a season of its ultimate suspense. Is that their fault or anything they should feel bad about? Of course not. But that doesn't lessen the sense of irritation many women's basketball followers have.

They are annoyed not because they don't appreciate greatness … but because they've seen too much of it in one place. Just as baseball fans not enamored of the pinstriped elite will groan at every Yankees World Series championship, women's basketball fans outside of Huskies Nation hope someone can put a stop to this UConn perfection.

Coaches across the country, trying to stay in their own bubbles, say that it's good for the bar to be raised the way UConn has raised it. And that it will make the best programs rise to the challenge.

However, UConn very well might not be done rising, either.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.