Coaches are fond of saying that rather than go into the NCAA tournament unbeaten, they prefer to have a few losses and some close wins. You hear this especially from coaches who have a few losses. Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma, however, is fond of saying, "What are you gonna do?"
He uses this phrase every few sentences, especially when talking about his team's record (24-0 after beating Miami 86-59 on Sunday before a sellout crowd of 16,294 at the Hartford Civic Center) and its average margin of victory (28.5 points). The closest the Huskies have come to a squeaker was an 11-point win at UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 28. Connecticut has beaten five ranked teams this season by an average of 21.8 points. What are you gonna do if your team's really that good? "Are you going to manufacture close games?" Auriemma asks. "You can't."
It's not as if Auriemma didn't try to schedule challenging games outside the Big East. He arranged a home date against defending national champion Tennessee ( UConn won 72-57) and a road game against 1996 NCAA runner-up Georgia (the Huskies romped 97-65). It was the Georgia win that set Connecticut's players harkening back to that once-in-a-lifetime, planets-in-single-file 35-0 record the Huskies put together in 1994-95. "For it almost to be in the making again," says UConn forward Nykesha Sales, "gets your heart thumping."
With just three games remaining before the Huskies host the Big East tournament, which they've strolled through in each of the last three years, chances are that Connecticut will reach the NCAA tournament undefeated again. Much of the credit for that goes to center Kara Wolters, who at week's end was leading the Huskies in scoring (16.8 per game), rebounds (8.3) and blocks (2.9), not to mention commitment to winning another title. "I don't want any what-ifs or any doubts about whether I did everything I could to help the university and the sport of women's basketball," Wolters says. "If we could go undefeated again, it would just be incredible."
Whether a 36-0 record would help the women's game or just demoralize all the other teams remains to be seen, but it certainly would qualify as incredible. Since their undefeated season, the second in women's Division I play, the Huskies have lost two national players of the year, Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti, and another stalwart, Jamelle Elliott. But two future player-of-the-year candidates remain in Wolters, a 6'7" senior and a front-runner for the award this year, and Sales, a 6-foot junior who could well be the choice in 1998.
Sales stepped up in a semifinal loss to Tennessee at the Final Four last year and hasn't stepped down since. She scored a career-high 28 points in that game, including the three-pointer with four seconds to play that sent the game into overtime. "That really set the tone for this year," Sales says. "It let me see how I have to play, and the feeling stuck with me." Through Sunday she was averaging 16.4 points and led the Huskies in steals with 4.3 per game.
Other key contributions have come from 6'5" freshman center Paige Sauer and her classmate, 6-foot guard Shea Ralph, and from 5'7" junior college transfer Rita Williams, who has replaced Rizzotti at point guard using her speed and agility to make the position her own. "Jennifer was like Jim Brown," Auriemma says. "She would just take the ball and go right through you if you didn't get out of the way. Rita is more like Gale Sayers. She sneaks in and out of there. I think people who play us are surprised how good she is with the ball in traffic."
Still, the nagging question remains: Would the Huskies benefit from losing a game before the NCAAs to ease the pressure of having a perfect season? Auriemma thinks not. "Sometimes people underestimate the positive things it gives you, knowing that you're playing so well all the time," he says. "Going into every game expecting to win, that's a pretty powerful feeling."
No More Blunderjokes
This season a lot of teams have shrugged off years of mediocrity and gained a measure of respectability, but none has done so as dramatically as Northern Arizona. Through Sunday the Lumberjacks, who finished 6-20 last season, had an 18-4 record, including an 11-1 mark in the Big Sky Conference, ahead of second-place Montana and Montana State, both at 8-5 in the conference. In addition, with a 51.2 field goal percentage according to NCAA statistics through Feb. 14, Northern Arizona was outshooting everyone in the country but UCLA, and its three-point percentage of 40.5 was seventh in the nation. Not bad for a team that just a year ago was known on its own campus as the Blunderjokes.