Charles leads UConn to NCAA title
Overshadowed by teammates and oft criticized by coach, junior center shines
ST. LOUIS -- A team for the ages wasn't about to play a game that turned on a moment.
Challenged early in Tuesday's national championship game by a Louisville team constructed to exploit any and all weaknesses, Connecticut pulled away for a 76-54 win and claimed the fifth unbeaten season in the history of women's college basketball.
Most times, the Russians skate away with a win against the United States. Most times, Georgetown finishes off Villanova. Most times, the better team wins. And if it's the fact that sometimes the little guy triumphs that fuels our imaginations and fills the coffers in Las Vegas, it's only because more often than not, might makes right on the court.
In other words, there are times when giants need to be as good as advertised to maintain a natural order. And in a city whose most famous landmark casts one of architecture's most recognizable silhouettes, Connecticut left the college basketball world in its shadow.
"I kept thinking, I wonder how many times the best team in the country wins the NCAA championship," Geno Auriemma said of his thoughts watching North Carolina win Monday in the men's title game. "Sometimes it's just the best team for six games or the best team for one night. I thought, 'Well, that's what's going to happen with us. We're the best team in the country; we're going to win it.' Then five minutes later, I was like, 'Nah, just too much coincidence that it would happen two nights in a row.'"
Eight years ago, Connecticut lost a Final Four game to Notre Dame in St. Louis and used the memory of that setback to fuel an undefeated title run the next season, the last previous perfect season in the sport. So the Scottrade Center was an appropriate setting for a squad that found its own motivation this season in a semifinal loss to Stanford a year ago.
And it was equally fitting that the player who paved the way for the win on this night was neither Renee Montgomery, the senior All-American who leads the team on and off court, nor Maya Moore, the sophomore consensus national player of the year who brought a sense of invincibility back to Storrs when she arrived last season.
The cornerstone of Geno Auriemma's sixth national title, at least for these 40 minutes, was junior center Tina Charles, the player who bore the biggest brunt of her coach's criticism after the loss to Stanford last season and again throughout much of this season.
"Before we went out there, coach told us we needed to establish the post game," Montgomery said. "And I think she took it personal, and she really came out there and she played aggressively on both ends of the floor. I think that might be the best game I've seen her play in a long time. Not only because of stats, just because of how she carried herself."
Charles finished with 25 points and 19 rebounds, the latter tying a career best. She dominated the game in the first half, piling up 15 points and 12 rebounds as the Huskies turned a 17-17 tie with just more than 10 minutes to play into a 39-25 halftime lead that never shrank below that margin. And two days after spending most of a semifinal win against Stanford playing the role of wooden barricade to Jayne Appel's avalanche, doing what she could to slow the inevitable, Charles was the biggest presence on both ends of the floor Tuesday.
Whether sprinting across the lane as though she was coming out of the starting blocks in an Olympic race and carving out space on a post-up to finish off a pass from Moore or blocking back-to-back shots from Louisville's Monique Reid, Charles moved with a sense of purpose that left even Auriemma speechless at times. Late in a regional final grind-it-out win against Arizona State, a visibly frustrated Auriemma yelled at Charles after one particular lapse, questioning in no uncertain terms whether she wanted to play that day.
On this day, when Charles jogged past him after coming out with her second foul midway through the second half, he simply slapped her on the back and didn't say a word.
Nothing needed to be said.
"I think there was probably a point at some time during the season that we wondered [if she would get it]," associate head coach Chris Dailey said. "But with post players, it's always a process. And Tina is such a nice kid. To get her to be the kind of aggressive, physical player that we need her to be on a regular basis was a challenge because I don't think it's in her personality. It's in her mom's personality; it's in her dad's personality. But it's not in hers, by nature.
"The last three weekends, and certainly the Big East tournament, I don't know whether the light came on, I don't know whether there was a defining moment for her, but she was physical, she was aggressive, she finished around the basket, she made her free throws. She did everything we expect her to do and that she's capable of doing. And that's what you want for somebody."
Named one of the 10 players on the State Farm All-America team during Final Four weekend, Charles is emblematic of why the Huskies didn't really have -- nor really need -- a bench beyond post Kaili McLaren. One of the best players in the nation in her own right, Charles still has been overshadowed at times by Montgomery and Moore. That fate goes doubly for the team's other two starters, Kalana Greene and Tiffany Hayes.
But it's the collective package more than any individual that carried Connecticut to the top of the basketball world and the top of the ladders in St. Louis -- the only time the Huskies cut down the nets in a season that obviously included regular-season and conference tournament championships and a regional triumph in Trenton.
Whether for the span of an entire game, as was the case when Hayes shredded California for a career-high 28 points in the Sweet 16, or for a possession, as when Greene bailed out a trapped Hayes early Tuesday night and converted a three-point play to tie the score at 9, the Huskies always had at least one player the other team couldn't account for.
And what could have been the team's biggest vulnerability became its greatest strength.
A team that lost the nation's top recruit, Elena Delle Donne, before she ever played a game at Connecticut and lost a freshman playing like a star, Caroline Doty, to a season-ending knee injury in January, ended up winning because its five players were better than any five players the rest of the country could throw at them.
"You wonder if you only play five players, do you wear them out by the end of the year, or because they always play together, do they really get to know how to play together and play well," Dailey said. "And this year, because of situation, injury, need and necessity, they ended up playing a lot together, and that probably helped them. But I also think their individual personalities and their willingness to do whatever they needed to do at that time allowed this group to play really well together."
And because those players who spent an entire offseason thinking about one loss played with better chemistry and camaraderie for five months than any other team in the country.
"I was so happy to have won with every single one of my teammates," Moore said. "I just really feel like this year, we really just sacrificed and put each other first and genuinely cared about each other. And that's the best way to win it. Because if we were on a team that we didn't really get along, or we just came, did our work and then went our separate ways, it would be nice but it wouldn't feel as good as it does right now."
As she finished a courtside radio interview in the moments after the game, Charles screamed out, "Anything is possible!"
Sometimes anything includes the probable. Because sometimes the best team wins.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.