WHEN CONNECTICUT SOPHOMORE forward Maya Moore saw the Thanksgiving turkey, or rather the decorated outline of freshman guard Caroline Doty's left hand drawn on assistant coach Shea Ralph's office whiteboard in October, she couldn't resist. Moore picked up a marker, outlined her own left hand, added colorful gobbler flourishes and wrote beside both birds, WHOSE TURKEY IS BEST? If the results of the polling were unreliable ("Maya got more votes, but she was standing right there, so the count could be skewed," says Ralph), the contest itself, which wasn't a contest at all until Moore got involved, is instructive. "Maya wants to be the best at everything, and I mean everything," says junior center Tina Charles. "Video games, grades, who's first in the mile—you name it. She takes every opportunity to show what she can do."
What the college basketball world saw Moore do during the 2007-08 season was turn in arguably the most spectacular freshman year in the history of women's hoops. Made a starter after junior guard Kalana Greene tore her ACL in the eighth game, Moore led the Huskies to a 36-2 record and their first Final Four appearance since 2004, averaging a team-high 17.8 points and hitting 42.0% of her three-pointers. She was second in rebounding (7.6 per game) and blocked shots (1.6) and third in assists (3.0). She became the first freshman, male or female, to be named Big East Player of the Year and was runner-up to Tennessee forward Candace Parker in AP Player of the Year voting.
And Moore did all that while maintaining a 3.85 grade point average. "I believe Maya will be the torchbearer who carries the game to another level," says DePaul coach Doug Bruno, for whom Moore played on two USA Basketball squads. "She's taken the torch from Parker, who took it from Diana Taurasi."
Moore blazed through her sophomore season as well, putting up numbers that added her name to the discussion of the greatest players ever. She has scored 754 points to shatter former UConn center Kara Wolters's single-season mark of 694. Against Syracuse on Jan. 17, Moore hit 10 three-pointers and scored 40 points to reach 1,000 for her career faster than any other Huskies player (55 games). She was again named Big East Player of the Year, while adding the AP, Naismith and Wade player of the year trophies to her collection. With a 3.74 GPA Moore also became the first UConn player since Jennifer Rizzotti in 1996 to be named first-team Academic All-America.
ASK THE COGNOSCENTI WHAT SETS MOORE APART and there is surprising consensus. It's not her deadly shooting, her nose for rebounds, her on-court savvy, her absurd athleticism—the 6-foot Moore dunks for fun but has yet to attempt one in a game—or even her competitive drive, which Bruno compares with Michael Jordan's. It's her ceaseless effort. "We talk about shooters being in the zone, but her work ethic is in the zone," says TV analyst Debbie Antonelli. "I've never said that about another player except Tamika Catchings. [About] how many kids can you say, They never take a play off?"
For UConn coach Geno Auriemma, however, Moore's distinguishing trait is a blazing confidence that reminds him of Taurasi, the force behind the Huskies' 2003 and '04 titles. "Like Diana, Maya has this incredible self-belief: As long as I'm on the court, we can win. As long as there is time left on the clock, we can win. If there's a play that has to be made, I'm going to make it," he says. "She might make eight threes in a row or get seven offensive rebounds in a row, and the other players will just look at her [in awe]. Yet there is just enough dorkiness in her that you can't put her on that pedestal. She'll do an impromptu cheer, and everyone will look at her like she's a [goofball]. She's a normal 19-year-old kid, which is a good thing. Otherwise you'd start to think she's a 29-year-old who snuck into college."
It's not just Moore's game that suggests she's well beyond her teens. It's her distaste for "going crazy" in college, her refusal to take anything for granted and her attention to detail. In the preseason Ralph assigned each guard a certain number of shots to take each week. At the end of the first week she received a text from Moore breaking down her shots taken and percentages made from seven feet, 15 feet, the three-point line and off the dribble. "It said, My goal, without defense, is this percentage, and for threes it's this percentage," says Ralph. "I only asked her to take shots. But that's the kind of kid she is; she wants to see improvement."
After her senior year at Collins Hill High in Suwanee, Ga., Moore asked Connecticut assistant Jamelle Elliott if she could audition for the 2008 Olympic team. "If there was an opportunity she wanted to take advantage," says Elliott. "This kid is always thinking about what's next."
Moore's sense of purpose was evident early. When she was eight she set aside the other sports she was playing to focus on basketball. That same year the WNBA was launched. "That's where I got my passion for the game, watching the WNBA on TV," says Moore. "Cynthia Cooper, Raise the Roof, We Got Next, I was into all of it."
At 10 she established Maya's Mobile Car Wash to earn money for the drum set that she still plays in her mom's basement. At 12 Maya was born again. She credits her deep Christian faith for that quality others call confidence and she calls inner peace. "Everything you see me involved in flows from my faith," she says.