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A few days before she became Connecticut's alltime leading scorer, Maya Moore listened self-consciously as her sophomore teammate Kelly Faris went off on a compliment rant. "Maya does everything," Faris said. "She's a great player. A great person. A great leader. We're going to miss Maya so much when she's gone." You know—all the usual stuff about the 6-foot senior forward who is already a three-time All-America and Academic All-America and a two-time player of the year, a young woman so poised and grounded that she might consider politics when she's finished with what should be a fruitful WNBA career.
When Faris was through, Moore pulled out a tissue, dabbed at her eyes and handed Faris a five-dollar bill. "I thought it was supposed to be 10," Faris said with a straight face.
The UConn women need a touch of levity from time to time, because, man, this team is as serious as root canal. Junior shooting guard Tiffany Hayes insists that the Huskies have fun away from prying eyes, particularly in prepractice shooting games of "two-up." But UConn generally comes across as a team that practices seriously, warms up seriously, plays seriously and (with some exceptions) interviews seriously as it pursues one serious milestone. A routine 86--32 win over Sacred Heart on Sunday afternoon in Hartford—during which Moore scored 17 points to pass center Tina Charles (2,346) on UConn's alltime list—was the Huskies' 86th in a row, leaving them three short of surpassing the 88 straight won by UCLA's men's team between Jan. 23, 1971, and Jan. 19, 1974.
And if UConn indeed wins the record 89th on Dec. 21 against Florida State, you will hear some serious braying. Women's basketball is weak. UConn doesn't play anybody. They have so much talent that they just roll over their opponents. Bryant Gumbel, the host of HBO's Real Sports, has already brayed. Following Frank Deford's recent segment on UConn coach Geno Auriemma, Gumbel looked as if he had eaten a bucket of bad clams as he begged his viewers not to compare UConn's accomplishments with UCLA's.
That slight was not taken lightly in the Nutmeg State, where Huskies of both genders are treated like royalty, and even less lightly in the Auriemma household, where male Auriemmas are exalted. "Watched the HBO interview again just to make sure I really believe Bryant Gumbel is an epic douche," tweeted 25-year-old Alysa Auriemma, who is, plainly, her father's daughter.
Comparisons across gender and time are both invidious and impossible, but let's be clear about a few things. UConn can beat only the teams on its schedule, and it always seeks out the best. UConn has beaten 29 ranked opponents (including 16 in the Top 10) by an average of 24.6 points during the streak, which isn't a great deal less than its overall victory margin of 32.3. UCLA beat just 10 Top 10 opponents during their run. The streak, which began with the first game of the 2008--09 season, includes 12 victories in the NCAA tournament and six in the conference tournament, perennial stumbling blocks even for great teams. Winning 10 straight in Parcheesi is difficult; winning more than 80 in a team sport is mind-boggling.
But if the Huskies finish a third straight season unbeaten, with a third straight NCAA championship and a winning streak of 117, they will not have accomplished it with a superb team. UConn is very good, of course, and barring injury, Moore (who was averaging 23.4 points and 7.3 rebounds at week's end) will probably win her third Wade Trophy as the country's top player. But the Huskies are fortunate to have beaten Baylor, the nation's No. 2 team, 65--64 in Hartford on Nov. 16, and lying in wait is sixth-ranked Ohio State at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19.
Opponents may roll their eyes at the Huskies' "question marks," but that doesn't make these any less real. UConn lacks depth (the rotation is eight right now), experience (Moore and Lorin Dixon are the only seniors, and three freshmen are being counted on heavily), a consistent interior game (Moore favors jump shots over post-ups) and, for that matter, a consistent perimeter game (Hayes has been "struggling a little" from the outside, she admits, hitting just 24.4% from beyond the three-point line).
"I wouldn't use the word easy to describe the last two years," says assistant coach Shea Ralph, who captained the Huskies to the national championship in 2000, "but we were a well-oiled machine with multiple options. This year, sure, we have Maya, but we're still searching for consistency in our identity."
In other words, they're trying not to be Maya and the Mayanaires. Consider: The '09 title team had the country's best player at each position (Moore at forward, Charles at center and Renee Montgomery at guard), and the '10 titlists got 37 points and 18 rebounds per game just from Moore and Charles, a statistical kick-start in any game. "The last two years we had a ridiculous group that was supercommitted," says Moore. "Now, with so many new faces, we have to reestablish and recommit to stay ahead of everybody. A tougher road lies ahead."