- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- In a program that has had so many amazing and successful players, there's still something that has separated Maya Moore at Connecticut.
"She had a plan, and I don't know if anyone else came to us quite like that," Huskies associate head coach Chris Dailey said. "For others, their plan was, 'I'm going to go to college, I'm going to do well in school, I'm going to get better in basketball, and I want to win a national championship.' I think hers was much more detailed than that, in terms of what exactly she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it."
Sunday, however, the plan that Moore has followed so diligently did go awry. The No. 1 seed Huskies fell to fellow Big East school Notre Dame 72-63 in the national semifinals, ending Moore's career short of a third consecutive national championship.
Moore did everything she could against the Irish, finishing with 36 points, 8 rebounds and 4 steals as she played 40 minutes. The 6-foot forward became the school's all-time leading scorer this season -- she finished with 3,036 career points, which ranks fourth all-time in NCAA Division I women's basketball -- and in the process won an unprecedented third Wade Trophy as the nation's top player.
With reddening eyes but the same soft-spoken yet steady voice that she has had after each of the NCAA Division I-record 150 victories in her career, Moore talked about this season.
"Some of the inexperience and immaturity that our team has tried to grow through, it came out," she said. "Sometimes you've got to go through those growing pains. It hurts that it had to be in the Final Four. But I really hope that I'll be able to see the benefits of this experience for these guys next year. And hopefully, this will be something they can learn from and respond the same way we did my freshman year."
That is vintage Moore -- always looking out for the good of the program, even after she'd just played her final college game. In Moore's freshman season, the Huskies fell to Stanford in the 2008 Final Four semifinals. But it fueled their fire, and the next two seasons UConn went undefeated.
The Huskies stretched their winning streak all the way until this past Dec. 30, when a loss at Stanford ended it at 90 consecutive victories. Moore said the results here at Conseco Fieldhouse on Sunday -- with two No. 2 seeds, one in the Final Four for the first time, winning -- should help put the feat of winning 90 in a row into even more perspective.
"It definitely does," Moore said. "The bigger and bigger it gets, the more people want to take you down. It's incredible I've been able to be part of a team that realized that, worked hard and did everything it could to make sure that we could maintain what we had. I think that's one of the reasons why that record will be hard to touch."
In fact, it might be impossible to touch. Among the few times it looked like that streak might end was last season's championship game in San Antonio, when UConn trailed Stanford 20-12 at halftime. It was as poorly as the Huskies had played in Moore's career. Who sparked them in the second half to another championship? Moore, of course, as she finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds in a 53-47 victory.
"She doesn't get mad, she gets more intense," teammate Caroline Doty said of Moore's leadership. "She'll clap her hands and say something. And we'll be like 'We've got to pull it together.' You'll see the fire in her eyes. That she's expecting more from us."
But Moore always expects the most from herself, and UConn depended on her a great deal this season after losing two starters to graduation (Tina Charles, Kalana Greene) and one to injury (Doty). Then in January, one of the Huskies' top freshmen, Samarie Walker, transferred.
It put additional weight on Moore's shoulders, when she was already carrying a huge load. But she responded in a big way. After the December loss to Stanford, the Huskies (36-2) didn't fall again until Sunday.
"It's never easy when you don't win your last game," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has had athletes such as Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi, Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles who did win their final college contest.
"I'm going to think more about the best player in the history of the Big East and maybe the best student-athlete in the history of college basketball. I'm not going to let [Moore] be defined by what happened tonight."
Moore certainly won't be remembered for that. Her two titles, the winning streak, her community service, her academic excellence -- they all completely dwarf one loss. For her career, Moore finished 150-4 and as one of the most respected representatives of collegiate sports.
"I don't know that there's been anyone better at doing everything she did at the same exact level," Dailey said. "Not just the game. I'm talking about off the court, in school. She had a plan, she executed it and got out of college everything she wanted to get."
Well perhaps not everything. Moore did want one more NCAA championship. But she spoke with pride of what the Huskies have done in her time at Storrs, and how much it has prepared her for what's next. Which is a great deal.
Moore is sure to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft on April 11. And she will continue to be a key contributor for the U.S. national team, which she helped win the world championship last fall as the only collegian on the squad.
"I've learned what it takes to lead, and motivate other people," Moore said. "We all have to do our part. Coach Auriemma has taught me so much about the game -- moving, different ways to score. But also how you have to be invested in your teammates, making people feel like they're valuable, encouraging them and giving them confidence to be at their best.
"I've learned so many different leadership qualities that can't be taken away like a game can. It's been an amazing four years. I'm happy I was able to come to Connecticut and do what I was able to do. I feel I've done what I could. And it's cool to have it recognized and appreciated by so many fans, and, I hope, the women's game in general. I hope people have fallen in love with the game more because of our team and the competitiveness and heart we play with. I'd like to appreciate the bigger impact."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Maya Moore's two titles, consummate leadership and academic excellence make her one of the most respected representatives of collegiate sports, even if, like other UConn greats before her, she didn't win her final NCAA game.