MEL THOMAS WAS CONCERNED ABOUT her freshman teammate Renee Montgomery as the two walked to class one day a few years ago. Both had to deliver talks in their public-speaking class, yet unlike Thomas, Montgomery was empty-handed and calm as a lagoon. "I said, 'Don't you have any note cards? Haven't you prepared?' " recalls Thomas, a former UConn guard who graduated in '08. "And she said, 'Nah, I'm just going to wing it.' "
And so Montgomery stood before the class and delivered a five-minute speech on why she wanted a career in photography. Even now she can't tell you why she chose that topic, but she got an A.
The 5' 7" senior point guard thrives in tight spots, off the court and on it. "She has the kind of confidence in herself that Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi had," says coach Geno Auriemma. He recalls the Big East championship game against Louisville in '08, when the Cardinals started whittling down a double-digit Huskies lead. "They cut it to one, and I'm really pissed," he says. "There's a timeout. Renee comes running off the court with this big smile on her face, like 'All right, now it's time to play!' She was bored with the fact that we were up 15 or 16! And then she went 11 for 11 from the free throw line, and we win. She loves the tight situation."
Montgomery agrees. "Don't get me wrong, I love blowouts as much as anyone," she says. "But when you have a close game, it really tests you, and it allows you to show off how hard you've worked. And I love a challenge."
This year, when the undefeated Huskies beat opponents by an average of 30.5 points, challenges on the court were few. "We found motivation in the fact that none of us had ever won a national title before," says Montgomery.
That title, earned with a 76-54 victory over Louisville in St. Louis on April 7, capped a UConn career for Montgomery that was far more pressurized than most. In her four years she started in 148 of 150 games—140 of them consecutively—in a leadership role, helping lead the Huskies to a 139-11 record that includes four NCAA regionals, three Big East regular-season titles, three Big East tournament titles and two Final Fours. She has won piles of awards, including two WBCA State Farm All-America plaques and the Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the top point guard in the country. But perhaps her most treasured accolade came from Auriemma, who made her the first active player to join the Huskies of Honor. In February a plaque with her name and number, 20, was added to a space on a Gampel Pavilion wall that already displays the plaques of 10 other former UConn women players, including Bird and Taurasi.
Montgomery has a few other things in common with Bird and Taurasi. Like Bird, she has a deadly pull-up jumper, and she's nosy. Like Taurasi, she can drill the game-changing three, and she is a master purveyor of b.s. "Renee can talk her way into anything," says guard Kalana Greene, Montgomery's roommate for the last four years. "I never take her seriously unless she's on the court."
Montgomery's other teammates, however, have never stopped falling for her locker-room pranks. It might be a spur-of-the-moment thing, like a straight-faced warning to junior forward Kaili McLaren that associate head coach Chris Dailey is furious at her for being late, even though McLaren is right on time. A few years ago Montgomery was a ringleader of an elaborate plot to convince Tahirah Williams, now a senior guard, that the Super Bowl was being held on campus and that the women's basketball team was scheduled to do a halftime dance routine. "She not only gets us on the court, she gets us off the court," says freshman guard Caroline Doty.
Yet Montgomery, who is a team captain for the third straight year (the first true sophomore in Auriemma's tenure to earn that honor) is also very protective of her teammates. When Rutgers guard Epiphanny Prince knocked down Maya Moore with a hard foul in a game in March '08, Montgomery barged into the Scarlet Knights' huddle to ask Prince if she had meant to foul her that hard. ("I said no, and that was that," says Prince. "Renee has a lot of class.")
Montgomery is no less watchful at practice. "If I'm upset at one of my players, Renee gets upset at me," says Auriemma. "She wants it to be one big happy family where everyone loves everyone all the time."