That pursuit of flawless play begins with the start of each practice. "There's a certain level of play and effort that is expected the second you walk on the court, for the entire time that you're there," says associate head coach Chris Dailey. That means when each session begins with the players running two laps around the court, there's no cutting corners. ("CD would have our heads!" senior forward Meghan Gardler says of Dailey.) Lazy passes, late rotations and poorly positioned screens are not tolerated.
Some coaches keep to a strict practice regimen: seven minutes for this drill, six minutes for that one. Not Auriemma. He might spend an hour going over one half-court set. Let's say his players run the set for eight possessions and only two result in a basket or offensive rebound. Auriemma then considers: Were there eight good shots but only two went in? Was there poor movement or poor ball screening? "We're not going to move [to the next drill] until those eight possessions are the kind of eight possessions that I would want with the game on the line—each ending up as a bucket or an offensive rebound," he says.
Auriemma will also put his players in extreme situations, such as pitting four against six. Such exercises are as mentally challenging as they are physically exhausting. "But when it's five-on-five against other teams," says Greene, "it's easy."
During games UConn players stay fixated on the details, ignoring the scoreboard. "We don't think about the game," says Greene. "We know we're going to win—that's our mentality. We try to win every possession. We'll be up by 40, but we're still trying to win that next possession. Every TV timeout we'll say, 'Let's go on a 6--0 run or an 8--0 run!' That's what keeps us going, trying to make little games out of the big game."
That explains the almost cruel way the Huskies crush opponents. "This team, when they get someone down, they really put them away," says former UConn forward Meghan Pattyson Culmo, now a TV analyst. "Suddenly they are up 25. It's relentless."
Just as important as scoring is the offensive rebound that leads to a pass that leads to a bucket, the dive for a loose ball that leads to a fast break, the cut that leads to a screen that leads to a three. "With Connecticut, it's like what the musician Artur Schnabel said—and I'm paraphrasing—'It's not the notes, it's the pauses between the notes; that's where the art lies,'" says Coale. "It's not necessarily the play that they run but the way they cut to set up the play that they are going to run."
The Huskies have approached perfection a few times this season. In the first half of an 88--47 rout of then No. 7 North Carolina on Jan. 9, UConn shot 59.5%, grabbed 31 rebounds, including 10 offensive boards, and forced seven turnovers while making the correct passes, rotating on defense and getting the ball in to Charles. Auriemma even allowed that they had come "pretty damn close" to perfection for 20 minutes. Similarly, in the first 10 minutes against then No. 3 Notre Dame a week later, the Huskies played so well—they led 26--6 at one point—that "they could have beaten the Lakers," said McGraw, whose Irish absorbed three beatdowns by UConn this season.
Connecticut's discipline and precision also provide easy-to-overlook benefits. For instance, though they play as aggressively as any team in the country, the Huskies are whistled for a mere 12.4 fouls per game, fewest in the nation. (Charles played 37 minutes at Oklahoma without committing a single infraction.) That means they haven't had to expose their primary weakness—their bench.
So how can opponents break through a seemingly invulnerable force? They can match UConn's effort possession by possession, as Oklahoma did, and make a high percentage of their shots, which the Sooners did not. Or they can hope providence—fate, not the middle-of-the-pack Big East team—intervenes. Says McGraw, only half-joking, "I was hoping Maya and Tina would get the flu right before they played us."
Truth is, a team that relies so heavily on two stars is especially vulnerable if one or both is beset by injury or illness. Auriemma says this squad reminds him most of his 1996--97 team, a group that destroyed all comers by an average of 26.4 points until freshman Shea Ralph blew out an ACL in an NCAA first-round game against Lehigh. That apparently indomitable team lost to eventual champion Tennessee by 10 in the Elite Eight and finished 33--1. Yet when Greene says, "It's all very fragile," she is still talking about possessions—how a missed pass or offensive rebound can turn the tide of a game and "really hurt us."