Another title? Holy Husky Trinity!
UConn has three of sport's five unbeaten teams, but which perfect squad is best?
ST. LOUIS -- "The Haunting in Connecticut" is a recently released horror flick about, of course, a disturbed house with some not-so-pleasant spirits lurking around. The critics are being, well, rather unkind.
The "Ghosts of Connecticut," on the other hand, are friendly spirits who are not really spirits (they're not even dead), but they do linger and are never forgotten. The critics loved them.
Best of the best?
Every seven seasons dating to 1995, Geno Auriemma's UConn Huskies put together another perfect season. In all, five teams have run the table. Click here to see which team ESPN.com's contributors and ESPN analysts pick as the best unbeaten team in women's history.
They have names like Lobo, Rizzotti, Sales, Wolters, Jones, Bird, Taurasi, Williams and Cash. They led the UConn women's program to perfect seasons in 1995, when Husky Mania officially became manic, and 2002, when the starting five was so amazingly good it seemed perfectly perfect.
The 2008-09 Huskies, with their 76-54 victory over Louisville on Tuesday in the NCAA title game, have made it a Holy Husky Trinity.
"This is a story you'll tell for generations," said UConn junior Tina Charles, named the Final Four's most outstanding player. "Not a lot of people have experienced it."
It's the natural way of sports observers to put this group in historical perspective, comparing it to its UConn predecessors and the other two unbeaten teams in the NCAA era (which began in 1982): Texas in 1985-86 and Tennessee of 1997-98.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma gave a rundown of the three UConn teams to be perfect.
"The first one had no idea what they were doing," he said of the Rebecca Lobo-led 1995 Huskies. "Then we win, and we go home and there's people lining the streets and the kids are going, 'It's like the O.J. chase.' Cops everywhere, helicopters. And it dawned on them that they had done something that was just incredible.
"Then the 2002 team, they were so [ticked] about what happened in St. Louis in 2001, they actually thought the first day of practice: If we lose a game, it's a disgrace. They thought that anybody that really believed they should be on the same court with them was out of their mind. And they played like it.
"This team is young, fun-loving, enjoy each other's company. It wasn't until late, late, late in the season that they really started bearing down on it. That's when I think I started to see a different side to them."
Understand that being compared to the past might annoy some athletes, but not these Huskies. It's understood when you go to play at UConn that you will become very familiar with the famous faces of the pantheon.
You'll see them as members of the media doing TV and radio, like Lobo and Kara Wolters; or as coaches, like Jennifer Rizzotti at the University of Hartford; or as still active pro players, like Nykesha Sales, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Asjha Jones and Swin Cash.
Tamika Williams Raymond, who might be done with her pro career now, is an assistant coach at Kansas. Part of the 2001-02 team that took the national title in San Antonio, she says the bonds between the players on that squad are still there seven years after she graduated.
"We talked to each other, we got into fights, we lived together for four years," Raymond said not long ago, when Cash was visiting her in Lawrence, Kan. "But we all had the same goals: to win a national championship and to play after college.
"Swin is here right now, I talked to D [Diana Taurasi] and Sue this morning, talked to Asjha yesterday. As soon as Swin got here, I turned into an 18- to 21-year-old. She did, too.
"When any of us get together, we won't be the 28- or 29-year-old professionals we are now. We'll be the giggly kids who had a great time, who still keep in contact."
It was funny, then, to hear current sophomore Maya Moore talk about one day being an old lady hanging out with senior Renee Montgomery.
"We'll forever be friends," Moore said. "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. With all our little grandbabies running around."
Players such as Moore and Montgomery probably seem as young as grandbabies to the players on that 1986 Texas team that went 34-0 and had a program that was the prototype in showing how women's sports teams should be treated by their schools.
The efforts of then-coach Jody Conradt and then-women's athletic director Donna Lopiano created an atmosphere where female athletes were treated the same as male athletes and provided the same resources. Then -- voilà -- just look at the results.
All of the undefeated teams had star players who advanced the sport with their talent and personality. In the case of the '95 UConn team, the Huskies even changed the way women's basketball was covered by the media. The popularity of the team led Connecticut Public Television to broadcast all the team's games (that weren't already on national TV), and several of the state's newspapers assigned full-time beat writers to cover the program.
Affectionately referred to as The Horde, the UConn reporters have provided the kind of blanket coverage no other women's team has had. That and the fan support have created legends out of the Huskies who've won titles for the school (even in the slightly "imperfect" years of 2000, 2003 and 2004). And every subsequent team is measured against the best of the past.
"That's how it should be," Moore said. "You can't talk about where you are without talking about where you've been. The great things those players have done have made it possible for me to have what I have right now. I'm not going to come in and have an attitude about the attention that they get because they deserve everything that they have.
"That's why you come to UConn. Because I know when I leave, they're going to talk about my team and everything we accomplished. That's how it works when you have success and people to look up to."
Auriemma especially admired how this year's group was not rattled by the constant comparisons to the 1994-95 and 2001-02 teams.
"After these guys ran off a bunch of wins, they had to live with the whole aura of going undefeated and winning a national championship at Connecticut," he said. "Then the margin of victories kept getting bigger and the more it was expected that, of course, they're going to win. Of course, of course, of course."
It's endlessly debatable how one might rank the perfect teams. I have had the good fortune to see all five of them in person, and the one that seemed the "most" unbeatable was the 2001-02 UConn squad. Those Huskies won their six tournament games by an average of 26.8 points, with only final opponent Oklahoma coming very close -- a 12-point loss. Three of those 2002 starters -- Bird, Cash and Taurasi -- went on to win WNBA titles and Olympic gold.
"We were the most athletic, physically imposing, skilled starting five maybe in history," UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said of 2001-02.
I'd put Tennessee in 1998 as No. 2 on the perfect list; the Lady Vols' only hiccup was an Elite Eight scare against North Carolina. Once at the Final Four in Kansas City, Tennessee crushed Arkansas and Louisiana Tech, giving the school the first three-peat in NCAA women's hoops history. (UConn would get the second in 2002-04.) Chamique Holdsclaw led a deep and talented squad that went 39-0.
Third among the perfects could very well go to this 2008-09 UConn squad. But I'll give it to the 1985-86 Longhorns, who I believe were the deepest of all the perfect teams. Ten Longhorns scored in their NCAA title-game victory over Southern Cal, and any of several players could have been MVP on any night for Texas.
There might be some grumbling about the 2009 Huskies being fourth, but well, first of all, such "rankings" are purely subjective and don't really matter anyway. And realize that, to some degree, the "freshness" of this squad's perfection doesn't allow us the historical perspective on it that we have on the other four.
Also, there weren't a great many full-fledged threats to these Huskies. No other squad really established itself throughout the course of the season as a No. 2 that could challenge UConn. The thought that Stanford was that team was disproved in the national semifinals.
All that in no way diminishes the feat. The 2008-09 squad is the only one of the "perfects" that didn't have even one relatively close game in its tournament run. These Huskies won their six NCAA games by an average of 25.2 points, slightly less than the 2002 team's margin. But that 2001-02 team was pushed once, in that title game against the Sooners. The 2008-09 team's "closest" tournament win was by 19 points, twice (and, in the regular season, it had two 10-point victories but no mere single-digit wins). And the 2008-09 squad won its title game by 22 points, the largest margin of victory in a final of any of the perfects.
The 1994-95 team comes in No. 5 on the perfect list. But again, there's no way to overstate that squad's importance in being UConn's breakthrough team. Auriemma has six titles and three perfect seasons. Despite his team's dominance this year, the past few days have been almost harrowing for him, as he worried almost right up until the final buzzer about whether it would really happen.
"The longer I'm doing this, the more I'm in this situation, the harder it is to enjoy it while it's happening," he said. "But the better it feels after the fact.
"As we were going along on this ride, I'm constantly looking around the corner to see what's next. So I'm not appreciating the scenery along the way. It's not until afterwards you look back and you go, 'Wow, that was really cool. I'm glad we did that.'"
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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