Imperfect game caps perfect season
With pressure on and nothing going right, Huskies again find a way to win
SAN ANTONIO -- Maybe it just figured that this time, the perfect season ended with an imperfect game. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma kept saying this NCAA tournament wasn't preordained. And, indeed, for a while Tuesday night, it didn't look as if the Huskies were the team that had not lost a game during the last two seasons.
They looked more like a team that hadn't won one in that time.
"It's not supposed to be easy, right?" Auriemma said.
It certainly wasn't against fellow No. 1 seed Stanford, but the Huskies did win a second consecutive national championship, the program's seventh overall. The 53-47 final score made this the lowest combined total in the 29-year history of the NCAA title game.
However, that finished product was a step up from the first half, at least from the standpoint of the Huskies, who actually made some shots after the break.
Especially considering that these are two coaches who pride themselves on teaching a pleasing-to-watch kind of basketball, the first half wasn't just ugly. It was trash-heap-on-fire ugly on offense. Stanford led 20-12, holding the Huskies to their lowest first-half total in program history.
"I can't even imagine them only scoring 12 points," said a glum Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, even though she had just seen that very thing happen. "I guess our defense was awesome."
Said Auriemma: "We never felt comfortable in the first half. Never."
But isn't that the way the Huskies are used to feeling in practice? That's what we've heard from Kerry Bascom to Rebecca Lobo to Nykesha Sales to Sue Bird to Diana Taurasi to Maya Moore. How Auriemma puts his teams in impossible situations in practice. How he makes them believe that practice mistakes aren't things you just shake off with the thought, "I'll do better tomorrow."
As UConn senior Kalana Greene said, messing up in practice is just as bad as messing up in a game. Because one leads to the other.
So the discomfort the Huskies are used to feeling in their own gym with no one but their coaches and each other looking on that's the very thing that helps them when they're playing for a championship in the Alamodome with vice president Joe Biden in the crowd and a global television audience viewing the game.
In the second half, the Huskies kept their defense just as tough, but found some offense. This wasn't one of their sledgehammer games where the opponent is pummeled and beaten to a pulp. This was more like climbing up a sheer rock face without a rope -- doing it with sheer strength alone.
UCONN DURING THIS STREAK
|Opp. FG percent||31.1|
|Closest win||6 (set Tuesday)|
Winning 78 games in a row has never been as easy as the Huskies have often made it appear. But winning this particular game really was just as hard as it looked.
"It was a real testament to these kids and how strong they are," Auriemma said. "How tough they are, how resilient they are. There are so many things that could go wrong along the way. And it's just unexplainable to me that that many things could go that right for 78 straight games."
But part of such winning streaks is that even when almost nothing goes right, a team or individual still finds a way to win. Which was the case from February to December 1984, when Martina Navratilova won a record 74 tennis matches in a row.
"It's a once-in-an-athlete's-lifetime situation, which is what makes the pressure greater and greater with each win," Navratilova said of understanding how the Huskies must feel in the midst of such a streak. "And then it is compounded by the pressure of the tournament and being so close to winning the national championship.
"At the same time, an athlete or team on a winning streak can have so much confidence, you almost forget how to lose and are able to squeeze a win from a losing position. So even though the pressure is mounting, it is a great place to be."
UCONN VS. RANKED TEAMS DURING STREAK
The Huskies have beaten 27 ranked teams during their streak, including the country's No. 2 team on four occasions.
-- ESPN's Greg Dohmann
|vs. No. 2 teams||plus-16.8 PPG|
That is indeed how the Huskies treated it this season, as they broke the women's NCAA Division I record of 70 straight wins that UConn had set from 2001-03, and then became the first D-I women's basketball team to put together back-to-back perfect seasons.
"I think they had to face more challenges than any of the teams I played on ever faced," said UConn assistant coach and former Huskies All-American Shea Ralph, who helped UConn win the 2000 NCAA title with a 36-1 record. "They were expected to win, and win big every game. There was the whole streak thing, and it got completely huge. It created so much media attention, and it's just a lot for kids to handle.
"I thought they really responded well despite being under a lot of pressure day in and day out to be successful. Anything less than a national championship would have been a failure for this group."
Moore, who was the Final Four's most outstanding player (23 points and 11 rebounds on Tuesday), now has a chance to join Taurasi and Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw as legendary college players who won three titles in a row.
But that will take Moore doing it next season without Greene or fellow All-American Tina Charles, who concluded their UConn careers with this championship.
COMPARING THE STREAKS
How do the top three Division I winning streaks compare? One thing to keep in mind: Only the top 20 teams were ranked during the UCLA men's 1971-74 run. -- ESPN's Greg Dohmann
|UCLA men||UConn women||UConn women|
|PPG vs. ranked||plus-14.0||plus-18.5||plus-25.6|
"It's going to be sad; I'm going to miss them," Moore said. "But I'm just going to take everything that they've taught me they've been an example for me, and I won't let them down. I'll take how hard they approached their senior year, and I'm going to do the same next year."
Ah, yes, next year. Despite losing two starters, the Huskies probably will start the 2010-11 season ranked No. 1 again. They'll have the likes of Stanford and Baylor to face in the nonconference season.
With four more victories, the Huskies would break the women's all-division record of 81 in a row, set by Washington University from 1998 to 2001. Then there is the hallowed all-time NCAA Division I mark for men and women of 88 straight that was set from 1971-74 by UCLA's men.
"I don't think about 88," Auriemma said. "I'm not looking at it as a goal. If we're fortunate and it ever happens, I'll be astounded again like I am right now."
What Auriemma wants much more, of course, is an eighth NCAA title, which would tie him with Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. If that would come despite multiple losses during the season, Auriemma said, he'd be fine with it.
Still, as UConn sophomore Tiffany Hayes -- who hasn't lost a game in college -- said, the idea of keeping the winning streak alive isn't exactly unimportant, either.
"I won't say it means a 'lot,'" she said. "But it would be history. Just like tonight was."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.