- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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With every point and rebound she gets the rest of this season, Tina Charles climbs higher on the UConn totem, where she's already on the top.
And after she became the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in Huskies history on the same night -- with UConn finishing out another perfect regular season with a win at Notre Dame on Monday -- Charles thanked coach Geno Auriemma for keeping his belief in her.
Not a belief that she could be successful at Division I basketball. Frankly, she didn't need any reassurance about that. Charles didn't lack a belief in herself. She lacked the vision that she could be something even more than "just" successful.
"He never gave up on me," Charles said. "He took me to a level that I never thought that I would experience."
Charles, a 6-foot-4 New Yorker who has become the program's statistical giant, is poised to finish the job. Two more tournaments remain for the Huskies, who open Big East tourney play on Sunday in Hartford and then will attempt to win their seventh NCAA title.
Charles didn't come to Connecticut thinking any of this was possible but by the same token, she didn't think it was impossible, either. She was like a powerful-looking car with no speedometer or odometer, and thus unaware of how fast or far she could go.
"I believed in what I could do, but it wasn't the same as what he believed in for me," Charles said. "My first two years here, I would take possessions off. Or I would just let somebody else do it. So I had to have that mindset that, 'This is yours,' and to own it."
Auriemma says he can typically tell -- or at least have a very good guess -- in the recruiting process who will respond to the demands he places on players and who won't.
"Some don't think they have it in them, but then realize they do," Auriemma said. "And some just look at the challenge and go, 'I don't want any part of this.'
"The kids I love to recruit are the ones that are so confident that they can play here, bordering on cocky but never crossing that line. Because once they cross that line, you know that they're faking it. They can't be any good."
That sounds very much like Charles' mindset when she came to Storrs. And while the mental focus is typically the thing that separates the really good from the terrific players, even someone as good a coach and motivator as Auriemma hasn't necessarily been able to coax every player into reaching her maximum potential. In that regard, Charles might be his finest work.
And it goes beyond the admittedly nebulous-sounding "desire" to be as good as you possibly can be. Sports still means achieving your top level physically, and Charles has done that, too, while still being on the rise.
"I think I've gotten stronger," she said. "I understand double-teams, and I stay strong with the ball. Making sure I do little things like keeping my hands up on defense. And maintaining my balance in the post."
It's now part of UConn lore that Charles keeps a picture of Sylvia Fowles in her locker as motivation, because the former LSU star center outplayed her at a critical time in Charles' career.
That was in the 2007 Elite Eight, in Charles' first NCAA tournament as a freshman. Charles was 0-for-5 from the field in that game, scoring one point on a free throw, and getting three rebounds.
Charles saw the then-junior Fowles get 23 points and 15 rebounds and take her team to the Final Four. Of course, it made quite an impression.
"That picture is still there, I haven't taken it down," Charles said. "It's a reminder not to take anything for granted, not to be comfortable. Me and Sylvia are good friends; when I went to Russia with the national team, I got to know her better as a person. She knows that she definitely challenged me and raised the level of my game.
"You always need something -- like Coach. He's always a reminder to me not to be comfortable and to always demand and want more."
The thing is, not all players can demand more of themselves. They really are giving all they've got. Charles had to understand that Auriemma wasn't asking her for something that wasn't there.
"Trust," said teammate Kalana Greene. "She trusted Coach. If I scored 17 and got 10 rebounds every night, and Coach was constantly telling me, 'You can do better and better,' I'd be like, 'Come on, man!'
"But she trusted him. And believed in herself. It's just not stopping and to keep fighting through it. She's taken that challenge. And now I'm pretty sure Sylvia Fowles will have a hard time guarding her."
And the rest of the world might have a very hard time guarding both Charles and Fowles if they are together, as expected, for the upcoming world championship this year and the 2012 Olympic Summer Games. Auriemma is the national team coach, so he can continue to motivate Charles.
"Tina had a chance to see Sylvia this summer, play alongside her, watch her compete and see some of the things she does," Auriemma said. "As far as USA Basketball is concerned, Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles are two of the names you're going to look to and say, 'Let's see who really steps up to that podium [left by the retired Lisa Leslie].' Or maybe it's both of them.
"I guess it's my job in the next three years to make sure that one of them, if not both of them, gets to that point. It would sure make my life easier."
Auriemma, of course, has sort of made life "harder" -- at least in practice and games, that is -- for Charles these past four years. She's very grateful that happened.
"I do feel unstoppable," she said. "That's why I demand the ball. I'm just trying to get the job done. It's my time to do it."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
13dBonnie D. Ford