Is this the greatest UConn squad ever? Let's tip off the debate
UConn destroyed its 39th opponent Tuesday to win the national title
Coach Geno Auriemma was nearly ill with anxiety over not winning this title
There are many similarites between this titlist and the 2002 team
Connecticut's junior center Tina Charles had just concluded a postgame radio interview at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis when she raised her arms over her head and screamed, "Anything is possible!!" Wait, wasn't that the mantra of underdog Louisville, the team that Connecticut had just whipped 76-54 (RECAP | BOX) to secure the Huskies' third undefeated season and sixth national title? Shouldn't Charles have screamed, "Some things are inevitable?!!"
After all, no team had come within single digits of beating the Huskies this year, especially not Louisville, a Big East rival who had lost two earlier matchups by a combined 67 points. Surely this Connecticut team, which Cardinals' senior forward Candyce Bingham called "flawless," deserved to crow a bit. But the Huskies hadn't done that all year and they wouldn't do it now. It had been five years since Diana Taurasi booted the game ball into the stands in New Orleans after winning Connecticut's last title, and after falling a game or two short the last three years, nobody on this team was taking anything for granted. "We never overlooked anybody this year," said Charles, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after scoring 25 points and grabbing 19 rebounds against Louisville. "We couldn't."
Coach Geno Auriemma was practically sick with anxiety over the idea of not winning this title, so badly did he want it for his senior guard, Renee Montgomery. "To have Renee go through three years and do what she did, the thought of it not happening for her was just, honest to God, I've been ill," he said after the game. But the Huskies did what they usually do: they forced their opponent into a horrible shooting night -- Louisville's 30.9 shooting percentage was the second-lowest field-goal percentage in a championship game -- and relied on their All-Americans, Charles, Montgomery and Maya Moore, to fill the basket.
And now that they've won the title many observers saw coming months ago, the discussion can begin: Where do the 2008-09 Huskies fit into the pantheon of the greatest teams in women's basketball history? They are the fifth women's D-I team to go undefeated, the third at Connecticut. The similarities between the undefeated '02 team -- a team that featured All-Americas Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash -- are numerous. Both teams won 39 games, both were motivated by national semifinal upsets the year before. Both were fueled by a tough, steady All-America point guard who could hit the three (Bird, Montgomery). Both had a do-everything offensive player on the wing (Taurasi, Moore). Both had a powerful post game, though the 2002 team had a lot more depth, with the trio of Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams. The 2009 team didn't reach the statistical high-water marks of the 2002 team: the 35.4 point scoring margin, the 15.5 rebounding margin, the 846 assists, but it faced a stronger conference field. (In 2002, the Big East got five teams into the NCAA tournament, and only Connecticut survived to the Sweet 16. This year, seven Big East teams got in -- an eighth, South Florida, was on the bubble-and four made the second weekend.
For the first time, two made the championship game. And it was the first Connecticut team to win a title after suffering a major injury -- starting freshman guard Caroline Doty tore an ACL against Syracuse on January 17. "I don't think if you looked top to bottom on this roster, people would be scared of us," said assistant Chris Dailey. "In 2002, we had the best starting five and we were physically and athletically imposing and our skills were imposing. I don't know that people look at Renee and find her imposing from a physical standpoint. I don't think if you looked at the roster you'd say, man, that's a 39-0 team. But there was something special about them. They made coming to practice fun, they made road trips fun, they accepted every challenge. They are why you are in coaching."
Wherever this team settles into the pantheon -- and that will be a happy discussion for Connecticut fans for years to come -- it will be remembered for having the same competitive fire that has marked every champion before it.
After Tuesday's shootaround, Auriemma talked to his players about the significance of the game. "I was hoping I would be able to get something across like, "if we lose today, what do we lose?" I wanted to say, 'it's just a game. You don't lose who you are. You don't lose what we've done. You don't lose the incredible accomplishments that we've had'. So I said, 'Lemme ask you guys a question: if we lose the game tonight, what did we lose?' And Renee goes, 'Everything!' And I'm like, there goes that speech!' To her it was everything, and I'm glad it turned out exactly the way it did."
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