Charles perfect doing the little things
Huskies senior and about-to-be No. 1 WNBA draft pick grows into a perfect player
SAN ANTONIO -- There are few better reminders of how stubborn time is about moving ever forward than the realization that Tina Charles likely will be back here in a few short months, barely time enough for the city to take down its Final Four banners.
The WNBA's Connecticut Sun visit San Antonio in early July to play the Silver Stars, and the odds of the Sun not selecting Charles with the No. 1 pick in this week's draft are about as long as Charles' college team scoring 12 points in the first half of a championship game or the nation's two best centers combining to shoot 4-of-25 from the floor.
All right, perhaps those aren't the best examples.
Charles closed out her college career Tuesday night in UConn's 53-47 title-game victory over Stanford, and her performance might not have highlighted the entirety of the skills that will make her the WNBA's top pick and likely earn her a place in the post for Team USA for years to come. She scored just nine points, after all, well short of the 25 points she scored against Louisville in last season's championship game en route to the 2009 Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
But it was a perfect farewell for Charles nonetheless, a game that showed a player mature enough to keep doing everything but score -- she had 11 rebounds, six blocks and set too many screens for Maya Moore to count. And a game that showed a player talented enough to change the course of a game by doing those things alone.
As important as Moore's points were in fueling a 17-2 second-half run that rescued the Huskies from an abysmal first half, Charles was almost as important in keeping the Cardinal from matching. She made Jayne Appel work for position and work for shooting room all night as the injured Stanford All-American, and Charles' longtime friend, struggled through a nightmarish 0-for-12 night from the floor. On back-to-back possessions during the run that turned around the game, Charles stuffed Nnemkadi Ogwumike in the post, keeping the ball in play, as she almost always does, and starting her team's transition game the other way.
"There were times in Tina's career that if I got on her the way I did today, she probably would have been a little surprised," associate coach Chris Dailey said. "But she's grown up so much, and I'm so proud of her. She was just a beast on the defensive end, and they made a concerted effort -- they were trying not to let Maya or her score, and they were packing it in. Jayne was playing off her, so we just kept having her screen."
All against the same team, Stanford, that she didn't even start against in the Final Four as a sophomore, a game that summed up an undeniable talent teetering on the brink between potential stardom and a basketball lifetime of unfulfilled promise.
I think mentally her preparation was different than in her first two years. I think that's the biggest thing. Nobody ever questioned Tina's physical ability. It's all mental. She corrected a lot of things up there.” -- UConn's Kalana Greene on teammate Tina Charles' maturation
"I think it's all been said by a lot of people and by Tina herself, about how much she's grown and how much she's changed and how much she's elevated her game and how many different things she does well now, relative to before," Geno Auriemma said after Tuesday's win. "And as a person, she's a better person. She's grown up. She's a lot more mature now than she was then. And as you would expect someone to be after four years in college."
Charles arrived as the player expected to lift the Huskies out of the relative doldrums of life after Diana Taurasi. She added to the expectations when she announced she wanted to win four national titles, a noble enough goal but the kind of thing that came back to haunt her when she scored a solitary point in a regional-final loss against LSU as a freshman.
The elder stateswoman of this season's Huskies, Kalana Greene was around before Charles and saw the whole story unfold from recruiting start to championship finish.
"Tina, I wasn't sure," Greene said of her early impressions. "Coming in, you say you're getting the best player, high school player, in the country. That means nothing because when you get to college, it's different. She was always great during the year and then you get to the tournament and it's just like, 'Tina, where'd Tina go?'"
That changed last year, gradually, given how many different turning points people can pick out, but certainly completed by that championship-game performance against Louisville. And by this season, it was Charles, more than Moore, through just about all of the regular season and conference tournament, who seemed to be the rock that refused to let the Huskies even sniff trouble, no matter the opponent.
"I think mentally her preparation was different than in her first two years," Greene said. "I think that's the biggest thing. Nobody ever questioned Tina's physical ability. It's all mental. She corrected a lot of things up there. She came in super confident and sure of herself, and last year you seen she was the MOP, doing great things -- first-team All-American -- and then this year just followed up with a bang."
Charles is rarely the most memorable quote when surrounded by microphones, which is most of the time for players at Connecticut, but many around the team on a regular basis tell a different story. Huskies junior Lorin Dixon has known Charles as long as anyone in the Connecticut locker room -- long enough that Dixon, who is 5-foot-4 even now, remembers jumping center against Charles and winning when they were kids playing AAU.
"Tina was never one to be quiet, reserved," Dixon said. "Tina was an outgoing person; she's going to speak her mind, no matter where she's at. She's going to do what she wants to do. She's just a good person to be around. She likes to have fun. She's just always been the same. That part of her has never changed. She's such a kid off the court."
She was an adult on it Tuesday night, which is why Charles' time in the basketball spotlight is only just beginning. Not that she was concerned with such things after winning her second title, a second consecutive perfect season seeming like a fair trade-off for the two additional titles she predicted but didn't get.
"I'm sitting here fighting back tears because I'm going to miss this team and miss coach," Charles said. "I'm grateful for everything he's done for me. I'm going to miss just about everything about this program. [Athletic trainer] Rosemary Ragle and the rehab I had with her, my shoulder -- just all the little things that I'm just sitting here thinking about. [The WNBA] is far off my mind."
She'll be back soon enough, but San Antonio will never feel quite like this again.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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