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THE UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT'S first Final Four team didn't break through a glass ceiling so much as break through a glass table. The table sat on the patio of the Commander's Palace restaurant, or it did until the Huskies gathered around it, some seated and some standing, for a photograph during the 1991 Final Four weekend—whereupon supersub Orly Grossman and team manager Saskia Schweitzer went crashing through.
That pratfall wasn't the unlikeliest occurrence of the 1990-91 season. UConn's presence alongside Stanford, Tennessee and Virginia in the Final Four—no Big East women's team, much less any team from New England, had ever advanced so far into an NCAA tournament—ranks higher. But the incident stands as a symbol of how a new power announced its arrival among the women's basketball elite by the end of coach Geno Auriemma's sixth season in Storrs. Pieces of glass may have lain strewn haphazardly across the floor that evening, but Kerry Bascom, the Huskies' 6' 1" center-forward and three-time Big East Player of the Year, recalls that on that UConn team, "all the pieces just sort of meshed."
"We were a bunch of slow white girls, not very tall, so we had to execute," remembers Meghan Pattyson, the 5' 11" forward who joined Bascom along the front line and who has described the team variably as "short, white and dorky" and "short, white and dumpy." (At least she's firm on the "short" and "white" part.)
"Individually we weren't that great," Auriemma adds. "But when we put it all together, it ended up being pretty special."
Or as TV commentator Mimi Griffin would say of the Huskies, who wound up 29-5 after a 1-2 start, "These aren't the kids you'd pick first on the playground. But by the end of the day you'd want them on your team."
Gampel Pavilion had opened a year earlier, but the juniors and seniors on the 1990-91 team had begun their careers in the Field House, practicing with a curtain wrapped around the court so the baseball and track teams could work out too. Players had to clean out their lockers at the end of each season to make way for athletes in other sports, while Auriemma and his staff worked in a single open space. Associate head coach Chris Dailey, who supplemented her income by teaching phys ed, offered class credit to students who attended games. (Average attendance at the Field House for the '89-90 season before the team moved its games to Gampel in early '90 was 400.) Meanwhile the parents of guard Wendy Davis, who came from Berks County, Pa., brought shoofly pie, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, to pass around the stands. UConn basketball might eventually reach one of the swankiest restaurants in New Orleans, but at the beginning of the '90-91 season it was pure potluck. "Each game a new person would show up until one day you're playing in front of thousands of people," remembers guard Laura Lishness. "It was cool to watch."
At first many fans simply wanted to take in the new building, and with the men being a tough ticket, a women's game would have to do. But once inside, a fan couldn't help but be beguiled by the distaff Huskies. The top six players divided evenly into two groups: Bascom, Lishness and Grossman were the all-rounders; Davis, Pattyson and point guard Debbie Baer—ninth-grade AAU teammates in southeastern Pennsylvania—each brought an adeptness at some particular basketball act.
Baer, a former gymnast, had a knack for doubling down in the post, using her one-hand-on-top, one-hand-on-bottom technique to relieve opposing centers of the ball and begin a Huskies fast break. "Like the jaws of life," Pattyson says of the teammate she still calls Debra Winger. "And we were off the other way."
Pattyson—a vocal sort who hung nicknames on everyone and, as Meghan Pattyson Culmo today, uses her voice to earn a living both as a lobbyist in West Hartford and a commentator for Huskies telecasts—set tooth-rattling screens. "I took great pride in trying to inflict pain on people," she says.
Davis credits Pattyson with springing her for "oh, 90 percent" of the shots she got, three-pointers that came so sweetly off Davis's fingertips that she picked up the nickname Silk. "Wendy was a perfectionist," Lishness recalls. "She always went to class."