All week long he yapped to the media like a bullying, big-mouthed heavyweight boxer before a championship bout. As the top two teams in women's college basketball converged upon Cameron Indoor Stadium, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma refused to shut up. His second-ranked Huskies were the defending national champions and entered the game with an NCAA-record 58-game winning streak. Duke had been No. 1 all season and possessed a 20-game streak of its own. Last Saturday, after a week in which he called the Cameron Crazies "overrated" and said he wanted his players to visit the Duke library because "we know how smart [the Duke students] are," Auriemma finally took his act to Durham, N.C., in front of a frenzied mob of 9,314, the first sellout for a women's game at Cameron.
As UConn's lead rose to 21 points at half-time, ballooned to 28 and then shrank to six with 45 seconds left, Auriemma was ever the showman, playing to the crowd, playing to the cameras, playing to his team. He screamed and scowled throughout Connecticut's resounding 77-65 victory, but inside he was grinning.
"He's more animated this season than I've ever seen him," says associate head coach Chris Dailey. "This group needs more from him than any other team did, and he knows that." Despite losing four starters from last year's 39-0 squad, Auriemma has found a way to nurture his young Huskies: Behave a bit like a crazed Little League dad. Against Duke he cheered his players one moment, snarled at them the next. He leaned over and rested his forehead on the scorer's table to protest a no-call. He screamed his way to a technical foul when his team was up by 27. "He just really knows how to get us going," says freshman guard Ann Strother. After the Blue Devils had cut a 28-point lead to 59-45 with 7:30 remaining, Strother coolly sank a three-pointer on UConn's next possession just as the Cameron noise reached a deafening pitch.
The nationally televised game was billed as a showdown between a pair of All-America guards, Connecticut's Diana Taurasi and Duke's Alana Beard. Call it a draw. Taurasi played a marvelous first half, going 4 for 6 with three three-pointers as the Huskies raced to a 41-20 lead at the break. Then Taurasi inexplicably vanished, not scoring a point in the second half until 4:10 remained and the Huskies' lead had been whittled to nine. Beard, meanwhile, followed a miserable first half (2-for-7 shooting, four turnovers) by blitzing Connecticut's double teams for 21 second-half points as she brought her team back.
The evening was just as much a showcase, however, for a trio of Huskies freshmen. Strother, the team's second-leading scorer (behind Taurasi) with 10.9 points per game, got her second career double double (17 points, 11 rebounds); bruising 6'2" forward Willnet Crockett ignited the team by scoring 11 first-half points in 11 minutes; and guard-forward Barbara Turner grabbed nine rebounds. "They don't play like freshmen," says Taurasi, who finished with 17 points. "They can't play like freshmen with the minutes they put in." Most impressive was the poise of UConn's young players, who flustered the more senior Blue Devils into shooting 33.3% from the field. Connecticut also sank 11 of 12 free throws in the final two minutes.
With Strother, Crockett, Turner and guard Nicole Wolff, who was averaging 6.2 points a game before she was sidelined with a stress fracture in her left foot four weeks ago (she's expected to return by the end of the month), the Huskies, who don't have any seniors, are relying more on inexperienced players than any Auriemma-coached team since 1989. "Top to bottom, we just don't have the talent we've had in recent years," says Dailey. "But to see how we've come together since October is amazing."
The Fab Four credit their accelerated learning curve to their closeness. Ever since the summer, when they spent every day together on campus taking courses and playing pickup games, UConn's four stellar freshmen have become nearly inseparable. "There's nothing to do in Storrs," says Strother, a native of Castle Rock, Colo. "So we stuck together and got to know each other." As high schoolers Strother and Turner, a Cleveland native, competed against each other several times in AAU games. "We hated each other," says Strother. "But by the end of the summer we were like best friends."
The four freshmen live on the same floor of their dorm, and their mutual support have been critical to their success. Strother had been subjected to Auriemma's unrelenting practices when she was a member of the 2001 USA Basketball junior team, but the other freshmen appeared overwhelmed, and they struggled in early workouts. That's no longer the case. "The strong bond we have helps us grow faster," says Turner, who has emerged as the team's best post player. In Turner and Crockett the Huskies have a powerful inside game to complement Taurasi's explosive perimeter presence. In Strother and Wolff they have two sharpshooters.
Having passed the biggest test of the season, UConn should enter the NCAA tournament with its streak intact. (The Huskies have only one ranked opponent remaining, No. 23 Boston College, on Feb. 8.) At the rate these freshmen are maturing, who knows when Connecticut will lose. In beating Duke the Huskies have now defeated all three of the other teams in last year's Final Four. "This is the worst thing that could ever happen, us waking up Number 1," Auriemma said after the Duke win. "I can't stand that. These guys are too young. Most can't find their locker room, and they worry about being on time to class, and now we have to worry about being Number 1 in the country. That's horrible."
Then Auriemma leaned back, away from the microphones and cameras—and grinned.