Commentary

UConn as close to perfect as possible

Originally Published: March 8, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

The hush that fell over XL Center while everyone waited for UConn's Caroline Doty to get up after taking an unintentional knock to the head provided ample time to think. In the minutes the sophomore guard was on the floor, one could reflect on the record the Huskies were just about to set -- and realize how this very scene was a part of the whole thing.

UConn beat Notre Dame 59-44 in the semifinals of the Big East tournament on Monday and now has separated itself from Huskies greatness of the past. This current winning streak is at a women's NCAA Division I record 71 games, besting the 2001-03 mark of 70.

And if you want to try to explain all the elements of either streak -- great players, a top-level coaching staff, a history of success, a demand for excellence -- the one thing that is an X factor is injuries.

That's the part neither the Huskies -- nor anybody else -- can control. A coach can do everything right in setting up a team and preparing players. And yet basketball, with its speed and strength and constant moving parts, offers countless situations in which those players can get hurt.

And even if they're not seriously injured -- the way Doty was last season when she suffered a torn ACL -- they accumulate bruises, aches, sprains and strains along the way. Yet to win 71 games in a row, you just can't have bad days. You might have one player who's off for a game, but as a team, you can't be off.

It surprises coach Geno Auriemma, it really does. Because even the taskmaster who asks for perfection doesn't really expect to get it. Further, he doesn't expect to come that close. And yet that's what the Huskies have done during this streak: They've come close to being perfect.

"Losing is not even in my mind," is how senior Kalana Greene puts it. "We're trying to win every game, and we're prepared to win, always. If you prepare at the beginning of the season to win every game, if we say we're going to rise to that challenge, that's how we think."

And consider this: In 2007-08, both Greene and Mel Thomas suffered knee injuries that took them out for the season. The Huskies lost twice: by two points at Rutgers in February 2008 and by nine points to Stanford at the Final Four in April.

It's impossible to say whether UConn would have won both of those games -- or defeated the Candace Parker-led Tennessee team that won the NCAA title that season -- had those two Huskies not been injured. But we can say they would have had a better shot.

Wow, can you imagine if we were talking about a 110-game streak now, dating back to the start of the 2007-08 season?

Auriemma doesn't think like that. Well, maybe he will someday in retirement. In a pleasantly gluttonous moment, he'll say, "Damn, a couple of plays here and there, and maybe we'd have won 200 in a row!"

[+] EnlargeKalana Greene, Tina Charles
David Butler II/US PresswireThe Huskies beat Notre Dame for the third time since Jan. 16. But Monday's victory was the record-setting 71st in a row.

In the five seasons from 1999-2004, the Huskies lost just nine games, and only two of those were by double digits. That was in 2001, when UConn fell twice to Notre Dame during the Irish's NCAA title season, by 16 and 15 points.

The Irish sure could have used a little of that mojo this season, in which they've had three meetings with UConn. The first was the worst for Notre Dame: a 70-46 from-the-tip blowout that came after a daylong ESPN "GameDay" buildup in Storrs, Conn.

The second, a week ago, at least seemed competitive in the first half (sort of), with the Huskies leading by "only" 13 points at halftime before winning 76-51.

The third, on Monday, featured Notre Dame effectively zoning the Huskies, who struggled with shooting in the first half. UConn led just 25-22 at the break after its lowest scoring half of the season.

"We're a team that's used to making all our shots, so how are we going to react?" Charles said.

They reacted the same way they have throughout this streak. Like Greene said, they don't think about losing. The game was not such a thing of beauty to watch; consider that Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark scored as many points (44) all by herself in the Sun Belt semifinals Monday as the entire Irish team did against UConn.

But even when a game is a little more grind-it-out, UConn does that just as well as it does things that really do look pretty.

Charles had 16 points and 17 rebounds. Greene had 15 and seven. Maya Moore had 11 and 10, plus six assists. The Huskies seemed subdued afterward, both because of concern over Doty -- she's reportedly OK but her status for Tuesday's Big East title game is uncertain -- and because they weren't kidding when they said this streak thing is just not something they really think about.

"The hype is going to be wherever we go," Greene said. "But we don't focus on that. We just focus on getting the win and doing whatever we have to do."

As Auriemma said, "If you try to think about that on a regular basis, the numbers are too staggering. There's too much to think about. Too much to try to reflect upon."

Indeed, numbers like this -- 71 wins -- are hard to really grasp in the moment. People who don't follow women's basketball might shrug and say, "Well, there just isn't that much depth in the sport," but that's not true.

To the contrary, we now see so much talent spread across the country that the suggestion the game lacks depth is just absurdly silly.

It's like when Annika Sorenstam was at the peak of her LPGA career from 2001-05, winning 43 titles -- seven of them majors -- in five seasons. She was facing better competition than ever, as women's golf had broadened its base globally. But she was able to be consistently better than everybody, even with an improved talent pool.

That's what has happened with UConn these past two seasons. The scary moments with Doty lying on the court were a reminder of how fragile even a juggernaut can be, but that's what Auriemma has been saying all along.

There is another important element of historical context for this UConn streak, too. How many times now have you seen the video of the Notre Dame men's team ending UCLA's 88-game winning streak in January 1974?

Since the Notre Dame women have played UConn now three times in the past couple of months, you've probably watched the "Irish streak-buster" clip quite a lot. You've seen a young Digger Phelps coaching, short-short uniforms, fans in vintage '70s plaid pants.

But think about this: On that day -- or any other day in the 1973-74 basketball season -- you couldn't have seen the Notre Dame women or the UConn women play. Because their programs didn't exist yet.

UConn began its varsity women's basketball history in December 1974; the Huskies went 2-8 in that first season. Notre Dame didn't begin its women's basketball program until the 1977-78 school year.

So as "ancient" as that Bill Walton-led UCLA streak might seem, in the context of where men's college basketball was then in its chronological history … the truth is, it's not far from where women's hoops is now.

In 1974, the NCAA tournament for men was 35 years old. This year, the women are playing their 29th NCAA tournament.

If UConn is able to reach 88, it won't happen this season. The best the Huskies can do, if they win the Big East and NCAA titles, will be 78. Even if they do top 88 next season, women's and men's hoops are not the same sport, so it's not really like the Huskies would be "breaking" the Bruins' streak. More that they would be besting it on a parallel plane, one that anyone who appreciates excellence should appreciate.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves -- 88, if it comes to that, is many months from now, and the Huskies as of Monday have topped the record in their sport. The record they already had, of course.

"The problem is while you're in it, while you're doing it, all you're thinking about is the next one," Auriemma said about piling together so many consecutive wins. "I wish I could put it into perspective, but I can't."

Not sure he really needs to: 71 victories in a row (and counting) pretty much speaks for itself.

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.