Posted: Friday December 31, 2010 2:24AM ; Updated: Friday December 31, 2010 11:15AM
Kelli Anderson
Kelli Anderson>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UConn still the favorite for national title, minus an aura of invincibility

Story Highlights

Only Maya Moore and Lorin Dixon had lost for UConn in college before Thursday

UConn should use its tough remaining schedule to become a strong title contender

Geno Auriemma believes his lady Huskies will bounce back from The Streak

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UConn junior Tiffany Hayes was held to three points against Stanford -- nearly 14 points below her per-game average.
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(9) Stanford (1) Connecticut

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It didn't end the way Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma had hoped -- "I would have loved for it to been 98-97 in triple overtime and both teams play great," he said. But it didn't end with a whimper, either. Connecticut never led in its 71-59 loss to Stanford, before a raucous sellout crowd in Palo Alto on Thursday night, but the Huskies' reputation for never losing is such that Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen wasn't sure the game was in hand until "maybe the last 10 seconds."

But the Huskies' epic winning streak did end. In an eerie echo of the UCLA men, whose 88-game win streak from 1971-74 was bookended by losses to Notre Dame, the Huskies saw their streak end at 90 with a loss to the last team that beat them. Only two players, seniors Maya Moore and Lorin Dixon, were on Connecticut's squad for that 82-73 defeat, on April 6, 2008, in the national semifinals. None of their teammates had ever lost while wearing a Connecticut jersey.

"Some of the younger guys didn't know how to react," said Auriemma of the locker-room scene after the game. "They were just sitting there staring. A couple of the other guys were pretty destroyed about it. But it was more of a collective, 'Oh, this is what happens.' Now we're like everybody else. Now we're mortal."

Auriemma doesn't know how the end of the longest win streak in Division I history will affect his players. "I kept thinking no, the streak's not a big deal," he says. "But you look at it in retrospect, it had to be a big deal, the last couple of weeks and all the hubbub and everything. Eventually that catches up with you. I've seen it happen a lot of times: Someone sets a big record and then there's big letdown after that. But it's December 30. If this had been a Final Four weekend, they would have been devastated right now. We got January, February and March. We have three months of basketball left, and this team gets to forge their own identity, whatever that is."

What will that identity be? Does Thursday's loss augur the end of a dynasty and the beginning of parity, as it did for UCLA and men's college hoops? Not necessarily. Stanford's win will make the season a whole lot more interesting, but Connecticut is probably still the favorite to win the national title, though Stanford, Baylor and possibly Tennessee will have something to say about it. Consider this: Even with the Cardinal holding senior superstar Maya Moore to 14 points -- almost 11 below her average -- and Tiffany Hayes to just three points, Connecticut was never out of this game. The Husky freshmen, including Stefanie Dolson, Samarie Walker and Bria Hartley, who combined for 23 points, will only get better. And a lot of the things that allowed this Huskies group to extend the streak to 90 wins are still in place, including Auriemma, who has seven NCAA titles to his credit; three-time All-America Moore, UConn's career scoring leader, and the infamous Husky practices that are as exacting as they are exhausting.

But the Huskies have lost their aura of invincibility.

Even Auriemma admits that might not be a bad thing. "For three months, we've been talking about, you've been missing out on a great opportunity to see what it feels like to try to get something and not get it," he said.

"I used this example with Maya and these other guys at practice one day, when you tell a kid, 'Don't touch the stove because it's hot,' when the kid doesn't listen to you and touches it. Once they burn themselves, now they won't touch it. You can tell these kids all you want, 'If you don't do this or that, you're going to get beat,' well if they never get beat ... They'll feel a little bit different at the next practice. There will be a different feeling. And I'm happy they get to feel that.

"I'm happy they'll get a chance to show a different side of them. Where we go from here after what happened is going to define these guys way more than the 90 wins. How we play going forward, that's going to be this team's defining moments. The 90 belonged to somebody else and a couple of these guys," Auriemma said. "What happens from here belongs strictly to them. I'm looking forward to that."

 
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