TINA CHARLES HAD JUST CONCLUDED A POSTGAME RADIO INTERVIEW at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on April 7 when she raised her arms over her head and screamed, "Anything is possible!" But shouldn't that have been the mantra of underdog Louisville, the team Connecticut had just whipped 76-54 to secure the Huskies' third undefeated season and sixth national title? Shouldn't Charles, UConn's 6' 4" junior center, have screamed, "Some things are inevitable!"?
After all, no team had come within single digits of beating the Huskies this year, especially not the Cardinals, a Big East rival who had lost two earlier matchups by a combined 67 points. Surely this Connecticut team, which Louisville senior forward Candyce Bingham called "flawless," deserved to crow a bit?
But the Huskies hadn't done that all year, and they wouldn't do it now. It had been five years since Diana Taurasi booted the game ball into the stands in New Orleans, and after four years of UConn's falling short of the title, nobody on this team was taking anything for granted. "We never overlooked anybody this year," says Charles. "We couldn't."
After losing to Stanford in the national semifinal in Tampa last year, the Huskies had returned to campus vowing not to end the season with disappointment again. They voluntarily cut their postseason layoff from two weeks to one. During the summer they toughened up by playing pickup with some Connecticut football players and members of the men's basketball team, including Jeff Adrien and Jerome Dyson. When preseason rolled around in the fall, coach Geno Auriemma decided to take his team to Camp Jewell, a YMCA retreat in Colebrook, Conn., for a weekend of team-building activities. No cellphones, no iPods—and no basketballs. Just a ropes course and togetherness. "Right when we got there, they said, 'Make a true statement. Put yourself out there,' " says Renee Montgomery. "And I said, 'I don't want to be here, because I hate the outdoors. But I'm going to make the most of the experience.' "
Players learned a lot about each other and how each would fit into this mosaic of superstars and role players, and, perhaps most important, they learned to trust one another. "It really helped build the character of the team, knowing we could be there for each other," says Charles.
As the season went on, a team that was already close would grow tighter through their rare lapses as much as their many triumphs. After a disappointing defensive effort in a win against LSU on Jan. 3, Auriemma conducted a practice that was 2½ hours of defensive slides and drills. "I don't think I could even survive a practice like that again," says Montgomery. "It was terrible, but he got his point across. Even though we can outscore most teams we play, we don't want to be the team that just does that."
Stanford, the last team to beat the Huskies, would get an extra dose of that defensive intensity in the second national semifinal game in St. Louis. The Cardinal had lost All-America Candice Wiggins to graduation and point guard JJ Hones to an ACL injury, but it was still formidable, especially in the post. The team's 6' 4" All-America center, junior Jayne Appel, had scored 46 points against Iowa State in the Berkeley Regional final and was averaging 24.5 points—along with 12.3 rebounds—in the NCAA tournament. Most analysts had expected this rematch to be the best game of the Final Four. Charles, who has known Appel since they were 12-year-olds playing on the national AAU circuit, recalled that Appel's teams had usually won their matchups when they were teens. "We'll have to change that," she said before the game.
The Huskies watched the first semifinal, between Oklahoma and Louisville, in the locker room. Down by 12 at the half, the Cardinals roared back to win 61-59, knocking off their second No. 1 seed in a row. "We were in here screaming. Oh, my goodness, it was a nail-biter," says Montgomery. "Watching all that and seeing the seniors losing and going home, all that emotion, that was exhausting."
Montgomery would personally make sure that she and her two senior teammates, Cassie Kerns and Tahirah Williams, did not make an early exit. While Stanford's defense held Maya Moore and Charles to a combined five field goals in the first half, it was Montgomery who delivered, again and again, stopping mid-lope to shoot the deadly jumper that reminds assistant Chris Dailey of 2002 Naismith Player of the Year Sue Bird's. "When Renee is on the break and takes a pull-up jump shot, I think it's in," says Dailey. "I think Renee thinks it is too."
At the half the Huskies were up 37-24, and Montgomery had 15 of what would be her team-high total of 26. After little more than five minutes had gone by in the second half, they had nearly doubled the margin with an 11-0 run. The devastating second-half spurt was a hallmark of this team, but even Auriemma can't explain how it happened. "We did what we do," he said after the game. "With this particular group of players, it's hard to explain what leads to those runs. There's no timeout to formulate the run. I don't have an explanation for it. I said to the players, 'Look, I grew up in Philadelphia. Y'all ever heard of Moses Malone?' When [the 76ers] won their title, somebody asked Moses to describe Dr. J, and he said, 'Doc, he just do like he do.' Sometimes I can't explain what we do. But I know that if we keep doing what we've been doing, somehow or another it'll all come together."