After terrible first half, Auriemma's Huskies achieve perfection ... again
You could've thrown away the script, or book, after Connecticut's horrible first half
UConn, behind Maya Moore, rallied from its biggest deficit of the season to win
With a tough slate next season, Geno Auriemma says the streak, now 78, will end
SAN ANTONIO -- Deep inside the brown leather briefcase that has accompanied Geno Auriemma for each of UConn's 39 wins this season is a book on coaching philosophy. The book, John Wooden's UCLA Offense, has traveled from Storrs to South Bend to San Antonio, and it has seen some remarkable things along the journey, especially the opening 20 minutes of Tuesday night's championship game against Stanford.
"The book has his philosophy on attacking a certain kind of defense or a certain kind of pressure," said Auriemma, who put the portable Wooden in his briefcase last September and has kept it there ever since. "But there's absolutely no chapters and no pages on how you can win a game if you shoot 15 percent in the first half. Maybe because Wooden's teams never shot 15 percent in the first half. So I should write that chapter."
If he does, it will be part of an autobiography that now includes seven national championships in seven title game appearances and four undefeated seasons, including the first Division I team of either gender to post back-to-back undefeated seasons since Wooden's UCLA teams of 1972 and 1973. It will include a 78-game winning streak in which his teams trailed for only 115 minutes (out of a possible 3,120 minutes) and 9:10 during the second half of those 78 games. It will include an average margin of victory of 32.7 points during the streak, and an inelegant 53-47 championship game victory over Stanford that left the game's most loquacious coach nearly out of words at how to describe this remarkable journey.
"Looking back now at what we've done, I'm almost incredulous that it actually happened because I can't imagine having done it," Auriemma said. "It's almost like it never happened. It's something that's there and I know we did it, and I know it's in the record books. But I am so astounded that it's happened. Four undefeated teams. It's just too hard to comprehend. It really is."
It almost didn't happen, at least on Tuesday night at the Alamodome. The halftime score looked like something from an NFL game: STANFORD 20, UCONN 12. It was the worst half of UConn basketball this decade, probably last decade, and maybe even the next decade. The Huskies shot 5-for-29 (17.2 percent) from the field and 2-for-12 from 3-point range. It was so historically bad that UConn broke the record for the fewest points in one half by one team in an NCAA Final Four game (the previous record was 15, set by LSU in the 2006 semifinals.) It also tied the school record for the fewest points in a half.
The Cardinal were only marginally better. UConn missed 24 shots in the opening 20 minutes; Stanford missed 23. When Stanford junior forward Kayla Pedersen hit a three-pointer to give the Cardinal an 18-9 edge with 5:36 left, it represented the largest deficit in UConn's 78-game streak. The Huskies went scoreless from the 17:59 mark to 7:22, and at one point they were 2-of-20 from the field, 1-of-9 from three, and 0-of-2 from the free-throw line. Leroy Neiman could not have painted a more brutal canvas.
UConn's male practice players will tell you that Auriemma puts his players in impossible situations in practice, even occasionally directing seven male players to put full-court pressure on the five UConn women on the court. The idea is to make any game situation capable of being handled, and the Huskies responded at the start of the second half with a 17-2 run. Igniting the comeback was the splendid junior All-America forward Maya Moore, who scored 11 of the 17 points in the run, including a three-pointer that gave UConn the lead for good at 23-22. "It was a new half," Moore said. "We had to just keep playing hard and executing what we didn't execute in the first half. Sometimes it's just that simple. You just have to focus in on the little things that we've been working on all year and things start clicking."
Part of the beauty of the 78-game winning streak has been UConn's metronome-like consistency during it. Even the pregame routine stayed exactly the same in San Antonio: On Tuesday, the team had its usual breakfast meal of scrambled eggs, bacon and French toast and its usual pregame dinner of grilled chicken, pasta, and baked potato. They arrived at the arena 90 minutes before the tip, as they always do. And when they faced the toughest moment of the season, they channeled the consistency. "We acted like the way champions are supposed to act," Auriemma told the crowd after the game.
Sarcasm is one of Auriemma's favorite forms of motivation, and he reminded this group throughout the year that they could not beat the 2002 championship team, which featured WNBA stars Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Williams.
"I'd love to go back in time, because that would be a pretty fun game to play," Moore said. "There is a sense of awe in what they have done, but if they wanted to play us five-on-five, we'd say, 'Let's go.' I don't think we are competing against them. If anything, we want to create a legacy that they would be proud of."
"When they sign to go to UConn, they already know how high the bar is set," said Cash, who now plays for the WNBA's Seattle Storm, in an e-mail. "They should never want to live up to past teams; the goal is to be better than those teams. If they don't feel that way, they're at the wrong school."
These are the kind of debates UConn faces now, along with whether the program's dominance has been good for the game. Auriemma bit his lip on that latter question for some time before he finally unleashed some frustration in San Antonio.
"I've been asked that question a lot, obviously," he said. "I've worked really hard the last five or six years to not lash out at people and get defensive and be my old self. And a lot of the guys that cover our team aren't too happy about that. They like when I make smart-ass comments and get myself in trouble and annoy everyone in America and let all those people think that I'm an arrogant ass say, 'See, I was right.' So when I say this, I don't want it to sound kind of rude or anything towards anybody, but most of the people asking those questions are gender-biased. If this was a men's team, no one would be asking that question.
"I don't remember anybody asking questions about, you know, when Tiger was winning every major, is this good for golf? Can't anybody out there beat this guy? No, they couldn't. He was too damn good. Well, everybody all of a sudden had to get better. So, you either get better or you just keep letting people win.
"And if you just keep letting us win, then, you're right, it's bad for the game. But I guarantee you, five years from now there will be a lot more good teams in America than there are today because of what we're doing. Just like after we won the whole thing in 1995, there are a lot more programs doing what they're doing now than there were back then."
Did this game represent Stanford closing the gap? "I wish I was in the second [winners] press conference and then I could say yes," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "They've gone two straight seasons undefeated and I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit. We can't talk about it. We have to beat them to close the gap."
Someone will beat them next year, mark it down. UConn's nonconference opponents include Baylor, Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and a road game against Stanford. They will not survive that schedule undefeated, and Auriemma has said as much. The loss of senior center Tina Charles, the Naismith Trophy and Associated Press Player of the Year, and guard Kalana Greene, a likely first round pick in the WNBA draft, will be too great. But they still might win the NCAA championship because they have Moore and the program's pathological desire for excellence.
"I know when I came in, we didn't win for a year and it felt like a long time," said Charles, who will be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft on Thursday. "The guys coming in now, and the guys here next year, they just got to keep winning because that's what Connecticut does."
"Maya's greatest challenge next year is going to be that for the first time in her college career, she will be the older leader and not have a lot of help, and that's going to really take its toll," Auriemma said. "We've talked about it, and that's my job to get her ready for it. But, you know, people are going to expect us to win a national championship because we've got Maya Moore. And I would say, 'Good. So do I.' "
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