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WHEN CONNECTICUT HEAD COACH Geno Auriemma spoke to his players after their Final Four loss to Stanford last year, he told them that the team lacked a post presence. Center Tina Charles knew exactly whom he was addressing. It was no secret what Auriemma had thought of the 6' 4" sophomore's recent play. Three weeks earlier, after her lackluster performance in the Big East tournament, the coach had told the Connecticut Post that Charles "stunk." To make his point, Auriemma took Charles out of the starting five for the first time in more than a year and made her come off the bench during the NCAA tournament. The five-game stretch as a nonstarter was the longest in her career, and Auriemma's message wasn't lost on anyone—least of all, Charles.
"I felt like, I'm the post presence on this team," she said during the 2009 tournament. "Just the fact that he said that—over the summer I thought about it a lot, and I just knew I wanted things to be different this year."
Things certainly were different for Charles this season. For one, she was starting again, taking the tip-off for the Huskies in each of their 39 wins, including all six NCAA tournament games. She led the team in blocks (62), shared the lead in rebounds (348, with Maya Moore) and was third in points, averaging 16.5 in just over 25 minutes per game.
But the biggest difference, Charles says, is the mind-set she carried into this season. "Mentally, I just know what Coach wants from me," she says. "What I do in practice [matters], being more aggressive, getting on the boards, communicating, just trying to be a leader."
IT SEEMS, THEN, THAT HER MENTAL GAME HAS FINALLY CAUGHT UP to her physical one—a pattern that has followed her since she started playing basketball in grade school. Her mother, Angella Holgate, remembers a time when Tina, all arms under the basket, had a decidedly one-dimensional game. "She thought basketball was all about blocking shots," Holgate says. "Then she realized, O.K., there's more to it than that, and I can score."
With that new mind-set, Charles went from being a player to being a star. At Christ the King (in Middle Village, N.Y.), which has graduated such names as Chamique Holdsclaw and Sue Bird, Charles honed the fundamentals of her game and, more important, developed a sense of her basketball destiny. She had been courted by college programs since she was 12 and had received so many letters that the mail flap on the family's front door fell off its hinges from overuse.
When Auriemma took in a practice at Christ the King during Charles's sophomore year, she admits being "starstruck" by the renowned coach. "I was so nervous [that day], and I did so bad," she recalls. But Auriemma recognized talent, however raw it was. Among the dozens of MVP and player of the year awards she earned in high school, Charles was named 2006 Gatorade National Player of the Year, along with Greg Oden, and got the chance to walk the red carpet at the ESPY Awards, all before her 18th birthday. As a senior in 2005-06 she averaged 26.5 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game and led Christ the King to its second straight undefeated, state-championship season and the No. 1 ranking by USA Today.
Her natural talent had carried her to Storrs, but Charles would quickly learn that talent alone wasn't going to be enough—not for the Huskies, not for Auriemma. Her mother remembers attending a recruiting event, when parents and athletes visited the campus, toured the facilities and took in a team workout. "After the practice I said to Tina, 'I honestly don't think you can handle this,' " she remembers. "I literally got a headache. I had to get Tylenol because it was so hard and so rigorous. I mean, you're in high school and you think you're going fast and doing well, but no, this is college, and I just thought it was too much."
But Charles watched with excitement. She assured her mother, "This is what I signed up for."
EVERY SO OFTEN THERE COMES A PLAYER WHO SO frustrates the oft-irascible Auriemma that he simply cannot contain himself. For the better part of the last three years Charles has served as that verbal punching bag. From the sideline he'll throw up his hands, scream her name, stomp his feet and rake his fingers through his slick hair in obvious frustration. "You all would only see her on the bench and getting in trouble in the games," senior Renee Montgomery told reporters during the regionals. "But practices were just as bad—if not worse."