Commentary

Behind the eyes of Renee Montgomery

UConn point guard leaves Huskies with a championship and a legacy

Originally Published: April 7, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Renee Montgomery spoke for the Connecticut Huskies this season. The only senior in the team's regular rotation, she was spokesperson off the floor and coach-by-proxy on it.

But her way with words aside, it's the point guard's eyes that have always told the real story. Big, bright eyes on a small face, they are a more reliable relay for her inner monologue than any of the translation devices that United Nations diplomats wear for their debates. Coach Geno Auriemma has said before that he can tell how she'll play, and by extension how well his team will play, just by the size of her eyes before a game.

[+] EnlargeRenee Montgomery & Geno Auriemma
Elsa/Getty ImagesGeno Auriemma wanted a sixth title more for Renee Montgomery than himself.

Big and bold and the Huskies are good as gold.

They told the story again Tuesday night in St. Louis as the final seconds ticked off the clock at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis and the Huskies ascended the podium in the middle of the court to accept their championship trophy after beating Louisville 76-54. For perhaps the first time, those eyes that so often reflected intensity on the court or impassivity in her public dealings glistened with something else entirely: contentment.

Moments earlier, coming off the court for the final time, Montgomery shared a bear hug with the man who said that the thought of a higher spiritual power punishing his point guard for her coach's transgressions by denying the team a title left him sick with worry.

Winning championship No. 6 wouldn't really change his life, Auriemma repeated throughout the Final Four, but it would change a player's life forever -- especially if that player was staring down her final chance to win the hardware that defines Connecticut.

"When you've been fortunate enough to win multiple national championships and to have a couple of undefeated teams, you know it was because somewhere along that line there was probably a great guard that defined who we were, because that's just the way it is," Auriemma said. "It's like if you win a Super Bowl, you probably have a quarterback that defines the team. And every one of those players that were All-Americans and great players had the same characteristics as Renee."

As was the case in all three games this season against Louisville, Montgomery didn't fill up the box score for the Huskies. She finished with 18 points but shot just 5-of-14 and had an uncharacteristic four turnovers. Guarding Deseree' Byrd, perhaps the biggest point guard on Connecticut's schedule, she spent the game's opening possessions getting backed down into the paint and had a physical chore on her hands all night.

But as much as Montgomery could take over games on the stat sheet -- including 22 points on 11-of-16 shooting against Arizona State in a regional final and 26 points on 11-of-22 shooting against Stanford in the semifinals -- her impact in other areas mattered more. It's why one off night shooting the ball Tuesday came with a very different ending than the tears that clouded her eyes after a rough night in a semifinal loss a year ago.

It's like if you win a Super Bowl, you probably have a quarterback that defines the team. And every one of those players that were All-Americans and great players had the same characteristics as Renee.

--Geno Auriemma, on Renee Montgomery

A leader in her energy and by her example since being cast into the starting point guard role as a freshman, she approached her final season with more of a concentrated focus on keeping her hands firmly on the steering wheel. For all their success and all their talent last season, the Huskies took the court in Tampa, Fla., unsure if they could count on each other's effort and thus uncertain if they could win.

This year would be different. And what needed to be said, Montgomery would say.

"When you're comfortable enough with somebody and you're close enough that you know that whatever you say, they're not going to take offense to it, it makes you more comfortable to say anything that comes to your mind," Montgomery said. "I know that was the thing I was going to struggle with this year, and I've always struggled with. And Coach told me before this season started, you have to address people by name; you can't just say, 'Come on guys, we need to get a rebound,' when I'm thinking of a particular person that's not boxing out, rebounding. I think that was the thing I struggled with most because I don't like to hurt people's feelings."

Clearly, if he thinks those feelings stand in the way of a player reaching her potential, that's not something that has ever concerned Auriemma. And while Montgomery seems largely above his reproach now -- indeed, the two sometimes seem to telepathically finish each other's unspoken sentences when she's on the court and he's on the sideline -- that's a far cry from how things stood when she arrived in Storrs from West Virginia.

"It's night and day from my freshman year," Montgomery said. "My freshman year, [former assistant and current Temple coach] Tonya Cardoza had to translate everything he said to me because he would just be yelling and ranting and raving, and I just was kind of overwhelmed. And she would always just be like, 'OK, just do this and do this.' And now [it's] to where, when I go running to the sidelines to talk to him, we're already thinking the exact same thing. It's just how things have changed, it's just crazy."

Kalana Greene has been there the entire time. An ACL injury that wiped out much of Greene's 2007-08 season means the Huskies will be able to call on her again next season. But the redshirt junior arrived with Montgomery in the fall of 2005, months after the program suffered its first NCAA tournament lost after three consecutive national championships.

As freshman Tiffany Hayes leaned on Greene while they soaked in the scene in the winner's locker room Tuesday night, Greene recalled looking across a dorm room at Montgomery four years ago as the two then-freshmen talked about winning a championship. Three years came and went, full of highlights and accolades but only a single, short trip to the Final Four. And as the calendar turned, the conversations took on a different tone.

Renee Montgomery
Elsa/Getty ImagesAs a UConn Husky, winning a championship was always on Montgomery's mind.

"We always talk about what it is to be happy in college," Greene said. "And we always talk about the group of girls we're around, we'd be happy [with the UConn experience]. We loved the players we were next to. We loved it, but something wasn't right. Something was missing. We were happy, but not happy enough.

"This year, everything went right. We loved the group of girls, we loved the commitment from everyone. We loved the intensity from everyone. And it felt great the entire season. And now it's the happiest you can ever feel because you got the commitment from everyone down the roster, one through 13."

Maya Moore said the day before the final that she was still in denial about Montgomery moving on to the WNBA. Tina Charles left little doubt with her championship game performance that she'll have something to say about handing out leadership roles next season, as will Greene in her fifth season on campus. But as Auriemma hinted at, there is usually a connection between leading a title run and having the ball in your hands. And whoever plays point guard next season, Moore is likely to be the conduit through which a great deal of the offense flows.

So perhaps Tuesday's win won't turn out to be the last Montgomery has a hand in determining.

"We've had a chance to get closer this year and just trying to learn how to be a captain better from Renee, trying to talk to her and seeing how she thinks about certain situations," Moore said. "Just trying to soak in everything I can from her experience, and just trying to get to know her as a person, too. We'll forever be friends, and I really feel like when we're 70, 80 years old, we'll be able to joke around and sing and act up, just like we are now but with all our little grandbabies running around."

Even then, the eyes will tell a story all their own.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.