Commentary

UConn steals spotlight at All-Star Game

Cash earns MVP, Bird a double-double and Lobo announced as Women's HOF inductee

Originally Published: July 25, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- It shouldn't be forgotten that no matter how grandly something might be built, it doesn't just stand that way forever on its own. It has to be maintained, and that sometimes can be the most overlooked part of success.

Because it's not just what you did to become great, but what you keep doing to stay that way.

Saturday at an entertaining WNBA All-Star Game, won 130-118 by the West, the "maintenance man" -- who also happens to be the builder -- was on hand, surveying some of his best work.

"I've been coaching long enough now to be able to look back," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who's coming off a perfect season and his sixth NCAA title. "And people always tell me the impact that Connecticut basketball has had. And I kind of shrug it off and move on and don't really appreciate it. I think a day like today makes you sit back and really get a sense of what Connecticut basketball means to the world of basketball."

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Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty ImagesSaturday was a banner day for UConn, with five All-Stars and coach Geno Auriemma on hand.

Here's what he saw at the Mohegan Sun Arena:

• Swin Cash, who has weathered numerous injuries and a difficult end of her stay in Detroit, earned MVP honors. The Seattle forward had an All-Star Game-record 22 points, plus six rebounds and four assists.

• Phoenix's Diana Taurasi finished with 18 points, four assists and four rebounds, and still merits the title "best in the world" from her college coach.

• Seattle's Sue Bird got the game's only double-double: 16 points (6-of-8 from the field) and 10 assists.

• The Sun's Asjha Jones, who seemed to get the loudest cheers in the pregame introductions from her home crowd, had six points and six assists.

• Minnesota's Charde Houston, known to drive Auriemma bonkers at times while at UConn, had 16 points and six rebounds.

• Huskies legend Rebecca Lobo, the centerpiece player on UConn's 1995 national championship team, was announced as one of the six inductees who'll go into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Tennessee next summer.

Speaking of Knoxville … all this is not to set off any gag reflexes there or any other place where there might be rivalry with UConn. (Such as Stanford, for instance … and we should take this chance to point out that Cardinal alum Nicole Powell of Sacramento was a strong candidate for MVP, scoring 21 points with a game-best five 3-pointers. Terrific pick as a replacement player for injured the Lisa Leslie.)

It's just that all things Connecticut deserved the spotlight Saturday. But while it was impossible not to see the afternoon as painted in blue and white, there was recognition of more than just what UConn has done.

This was also about the essence of women's basketball and how it has progressed. UConn represents that with a tapestry that encompasses many different backgrounds and personalities.

The wisecracking of Taurasi and the wry sarcasm of Bird. The blossoming of Houston. The quiet resilience of Jones. The passion of Cash. And how so much of the UConn mania generated from Lobo, whose self-deprecating humor and humility was on display again Saturday, when she said the only accomplishment of hers that impresses her children is that she played one-on-one with Sesame Street's Big Bird.

"It's not just the quality of the players we've had, but the people, the character," Cash said. "You look at the things we've done off the court as well."

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AP Photo/Bob ChildSeattle's Swin Cash set an All-Star Game record with 22 points.

It was, however, an off-the-court action that brought a harsher spotlight to Taurasi, who was recently suspended two games and is still facing pending DUI charges. Taurasi did not take the easy road by refusing to discuss it; instead, she faced questions about it and has expressed genuine remorse. Of course, she has talked a lot about it with Auriemma.

"When Diana was in high school, the reason everybody wanted her was this carefree, free spirit, live life to the fullest [personality]," he said, although of course the fact that she was the best prep player also had something to do with it.

"She had a great time on and off the court, and that's why people loved her. And this time, it got the best of her. I think going forward, she understands some of the changes that she has to make.

"She's at the stage right now where this is the best she's ever played, the best she's looked physically. An incident like this can make you even better, because it forces you to make some changes in who you are."

Taurasi said she worked harder at staying in good shape while she was in Russia over the winter, and that was motivated by her desire for her career to continue its ascendency before she reaches that age where a drop-off is inevitable for everyone. For as much as she has already done -- including three NCAA titles, two Olympic gold medals and a WNBA championship -- at 27, she's still in the prime of her career.

"I think there's a point where you stay the same or you force yourself to get better," Taurasi said. "These next few years … you can't play forever. So I'm going to try to do something special."

She has already done that, multiple times, but it speaks to the pursuit of excellence instilled in the UConn players that she wants to do a lot more.

For Taurasi to win another WNBA title this season, one of the obstacles on the way might well be Seattle, where Cash and Bird want to win it all again, too.

They are joined in Seattle by Lauren Jackson, who didn't play collegiately in the United States but is almost an honorary Husky because she's such close friends with the UConn alums. She enjoys seeing the fan devotion to them.

"It's amazing. Honestly, watching it is like, 'Holy crap,'" Jackson said. "A lot of those girls, they're like my sisters. People will follow them and support them the rest of their lives."

For Cash, coming back to Connecticut reinforces that these are again good times in her life. And she knows what the opposite is like. Cash said she is writing a book to chronicle the hard times she has been through, with a serious knee injury, debilitating back problems and the feelings of isolation she went through in Detroit.

"I hit a low point, and to be able to bounce back from that is really fulfilling," she said. "I feel like I still have a lot of basketball in me."

Cash was the main target of jokes at a get-together of UConn alums at Auriemma's home the night before the All-Star Game, just because she has always been one of the easiest for the others to tease.

"But we made up for it today," Taurasi said. "We got her the MVP, so she's happy. It's the Cash comeback year. For all of us, to see her come back the way she has, we feel really good."

The gathering, indeed, reinforced all their bonds.

"We got together at the Auriemmas' mansion in Manchester," Taurasi said to laughs. "We just relaxed. The whole 2002 team was there, so it was cool. A lot of good times. The minute we all get together, we don't miss a beat. We could probably get on the court and run plays that we ran seven years ago."

The passage of time hasn't lessened their connection to each other -- nor that of their fans to them.

And if there are five (or more?) Huskies on the United States' World Championship team in 2010 and the Olympic team in 2012, it won't be because Auriemma as U.S. coach had any undue influence on the selection. It will be because they deserve to be there.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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