The connecticut women's basketball program is conservative. One of coach Geno Auriemma's favorite words is no—as in no headbands, no visible tattoos, no headphones in public, no backward baseball caps, no names on the backs of uniforms, no shirts untucked, even in practice, and, foremost, no premature praise. So when the Huskies' class of 2002 showed up four years ago heralded as the No. 1 crop of recruits in the nation, Auriemma and his staff refused to pass judgment. "We always told them, it wouldn't be till the end of their four years that we'd determine if they were the Number 1 recruiting class in the country," says UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey. "It's not what you do before you get here, it's what you do after you get here."
It's official now: Connecticut seniors Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams constituted the best recruiting class of 1998. With help from sophomore shooting guard Diana Taurasi (who in a couple of years may be judged to be the best player ever to wear a nameless Huskies jersey), the seniors beat a tough Oklahoma team 82-70 in the national title game at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Sunday night to complete a 39-0 season and add a second title to the one they helped win in 2000. Along the way UConn set new standards for dominance, outscoring opponents by an average of 35.4 points and handing out 846 assists (against its opponents' 410), both NCAA records, and enjoying a rebounding margin of 15.5 boards per game.
With their athleticism, hustle and unselfish play, the Huskies won over new fans with every game and earned praise from some surprising quarters. Shortly after Connecticut crushed her team 79-56 in the semifinals last Friday, coach Pat Summitt of archrival Tennessee approached the UConn locker room and asked Dailey for permission to address the Huskies. The revelry in the dressing room abruptly stopped when Summitt, the owner of a record six NCAA titles and a record-tying 788 career wins, entered. "Guys, I know this is out of character," she said to a stunned audience, "but I have to tell you, though I hated to be on the receiving end of it, you played a great game. You are a great team."
Even the difficult-to-please Auriemma concedes that there were many five-minute stretches in games this season during which "I'm not sure we could have done it better," he says. "Every pass was right, every cut was right." This championship, his third, got him a little more choked up than the last one. "These four seniors have done so many great things that I would have felt absolutely horrible if I'd sent them off without something like this," Auriemma said late on Sunday. "How many chances do you get to send them off the right way?"
Three other NCAA women's champions have gone undefeated-including Auriemma's 1994-95 team, which finished 35-0—and each of them can make a case for being the best team ever. But this senior class, says Auriemma, "is unique. We may never see anything like it again."
The seniors bring different strengths to the mix—Williams, probably the best athlete, is the politician of the group, serving as president of the student-athlete advisory board; Jones is the rock, having never missed a game or practice; Cash is the aggressive one; the multitalented Bird is the shy leader—but the four have a lot in common. All are on the Dean's List. All received All-America recognition this year. All are sure to be first-round WNBA draft picks. "One of the beauties of this group is that individually they've gotten tremendous accolades, but it's their collective spirit and will that make them stand out," says Auriemma. "As good as they are, they look to each other to get better."
Best of friends, the four live together in an off-campus apartment where, once a week, they cook dinner for what Cash calls "family night." As on the court, they complement each other beautifully in the kitchen: Williams prepares the meat, Cash makes the side dishes, Jones handles the pasta and Bird takes care of dessert. "If one of us isn't there, we all miss out," says Williams.
Harmony doesn't attend everything they do together, however. They're so competitive that each one of them is willing—eager, even—to cheat to win at spades or 31 or Bop It. "They cheat to get caught so they can start fighting and arguing, which is what they really want to do," says Auriemma.
All season post players Cash, Jones and Williams held friendly competitions to see who could get the most rebounds in a game, which may help explain Connecticut's dominance in the paint. "I've never been around a group that is so competitive," says Cash. "It gets ridiculous at times." At Senior Night on Feb. 20 the four held a contest to see who would be the first to crack under the emotional weight of the evening and start crying. None of them did.
The ringleader in the Huskies' tests of will is Bird, according to Taurasi. "Sue's definitely the biggest cheater and the biggest competitor and the biggest sore loser," she says. "That's why our team is good. We take on her personality in everything we do. It doesn't matter what it is. She has to be the first one through the door, the first one to the elevator."