When Connecticut forward Maya Moore saw the Thanksgiving turkey or rather, the decorated outline of freshman guard Caroline Doty's left hand drawn on assistant coach Shea Ralph's office whiteboard in October, she couldn't resist. Moore picked up a marker, outlined her own left hand, added colorful gobbler flourishes and wrote beside both birds, "whose turkey is best?" If the results of the polling were unreliable ("Maya got more votes, but she was standing right there, so the count could be skewed," says Ralph), the contest itself, which wasn't a contest at all until Moore got involved, is instructive. "Maya wants to be the best at everything, and I mean everything," says junior center Tina Charles. "Video games, grades, who's first in the mile -- you name it. She takes every opportunity to show what she can do."
What the college basketball world saw Moore do during the 2007-08 season was turn in arguably the most spectacular freshman year in the history of women's hoops. Made a starter after junior guard Kalana Greene tore her ACL in the eighth game, the 6-foot Moore led the Huskies to a 36-2 record and their first Final Four appearance since 2004, averaging a team-high 17.8 points and hitting 42.0 percent of her three-pointers. She was second in rebounding (7.6 per game) and blocked shots (1.6) and third in assists (3.0). She became the first freshman, male or female, to be named Big East Player of the Year and was runner-up to Tennessee forward Candace Parker in AP Player of the Year voting.
And Moore did all that while maintaining a 3.85 GPA. "I believe Maya will be the torchbearer who carries the game to another level," says DePaul coach Doug Bruno, for whom Moore played on two USA Basketball squads. "She's taken the torch from Parker, who took it from Diana Taurasi."
Moore blazed through her sophomore season as well, putting up numbers that added her name to the discussion of the greatest players ever. Through 37 games she has scored 712 points to break former UConn center Kara Wolters' single-season mark of 694. Against Syracuse on Jan. 17, Moore hit 10 three-pointers and scored 40 points to reach 1,000 for her career faster than any other Huskies player (55 games). With a 3.74 GPA this year, Moore also became the first UConn player since Jennifer Rizzotti in 1996 to be named first-team Academic All-America.
Ask the cognoscenti what sets Moore apart and there is surprising consensus. It's not her deadly shooting, her nose for rebounds, her on-court savvy, her absurd athleticism -- she dunks for fun but has yet to attempt one in a game -- or even her competitive drive, which Bruno compares with Michael Jordan's. It's her ceaseless effort. "We talk about shooters being in the zone, but her work ethic is in the zone," says TV analyst Debbie Antonelli. "I've never said that about another player except Tamika Catchings. [About] how many kids can you say: They never take a play off?"
For UConn coach Geno Auriemma, however, Moore's distinguishing trait is a blazing confidence that reminds him of Taurasi, the force behind the Huskies' last two titles, in 2003 and '04. "Like Diana, Maya has this incredible self-belief: As long as I'm on the court, we can win. As long as there is time left on the clock, we can win. If there's a play that has to be made, I'm going to make it," he says. "She might make eight threes in a row or get seven offensive rebounds in a row and the other players will just look at her [in awe]. Yet there is just enough dorkiness in her that you can't put her on that pedestal. She'll do an impromptu cheer and everyone will look at her like she's a [goofball]. She's a normal 19-year-old kid, which is a good thing. Otherwise you'd start to think she's a 29-year-old who snuck into college."
It's not just Moore's game that suggests she's well beyond her teens. It's her distaste for "going crazy" in college, her refusal to take anything for granted, her attention to detail. In the preseason Ralph assigned each guard a certain number of shots to take each week. At the end of the first week she received a text from Moore breaking down her shots taken and percentages made from seven feet, 15 feet, the three-point line and off the dribble. "It said, My goal, without defense, is this percentage, and for threes it's this percentage," says Ralph. "I only asked her to take shots. But that's the kind of kid she is; she wants to see improvement."
After her senior year at Collins Hill High in Suwanee, Ga., Moore asked Connecticut assistant Jamelle Elliott if she could try out for the 2008 Olympic team. "If there was an opportunity she wanted to take advantage," says Elliott. "This kid is always thinking about what's next."
Moore's sense of purpose was evident early. When she was 8 she set aside the other sports she was playing to focus on basketball. That same year the WNBA was launched. "That's where I got my passion for the game, watching the WNBA on TV," says Moore. "Cynthia Cooper, Raise the Roof, We Got Next, I was into all of it."
At 10, she established Maya's Mobile Car Wash to earn money for the drum set that she still plays in her mom's basement. At 12, Maya was born again. She credits her deep Christian faith for that quality others call confidence and she calls inner peace. "Everything you see me involved in flows from my faith," she says.
Moore's father is Mike Dabney, a star guard on Rutgers' 1976 Final Four team, but he wasn't a part of her life growing up and she prefers not to discuss the connection that she only began to develop with him recently. "We have a growing relationship right now, so it's good," she says. Kathryn raised Maya, her only child, as a single mom, moving from Jefferson City, Mo., to Charlotte when Maya was 11 to take a job promotion at a phone company and "get better basketball opportunities for Maya," she says. When the company downsized, Kathryn found work at a bank and transferred a year later to suburban Atlanta. "My mom showed me how important it is to surround yourself with opportunities and make the most of them," Maya says.
When Maya was in middle school, Kathryn had her researching colleges and writing résumés. "I told her if you're going to send a letter to a coach, they will want to see more than Oh, she's sweet; they want information," says Kathryn, who now sells handbags out of the home near UConn's campus. Moore's résumé included her stats -- which Kathryn, a former college volleyball player, dutifully kept every game -- her GPA and her summer schedule, and she sent it out to a few coaches, including Auriemma, who still keeps it in a desk drawer in his office.
Three years before she finished her career at Collins Hill High, with three state titles, back-to-back Naismith National Player of the Year awards and a 125-3 record, Moore had narrowed her choices to UConn, Tennessee, Duke and Georgia. She chose the Huskies after her junior season in part because she knew her weaknesses would be exposed every day under Auriemma's watch. "I came to the right place for that," she says with a chuckle, adding that she has agreed with 99 percent of the things Auriemma has yelled at her about. "All your mistakes are on tape. The coaches will say, 'And here you turned the ball over. Let's watch it again!'"
Not all the tape from that historic freshman season is game footage. Moore, who for all her poise and maturity harbors a well of endearing wide-eyed enthusiasm, brought a video camera on road trips. "I heard we had a charter to almost all our away games, and I was like, I've never been on a chartered flight! I'm going to record it!" she says.
Jaded she's not. At the McDonald's All-American game, in which she played as a junior and senior, Moore was the first player to leap off the bench and hand other players water. Her Connecticut teammates have found her refreshing too. "Maya puts everybody at ease," says Lorin Dixon. "If you're upset, Maya will make you laugh it off."
A self-taught drummer, Moore pounded out rhythms on lockers and walls to get her Collins Hill and Georgia Metros AAU teammates chanting before games. At UConn she hums and beats on the walls of the cold tub she sits in after practices. "She's always making up cheers and songs," says teammate Kaili McLaren. "And the crazy thing is, when she sings, it actually sounds good."
Good enough that Moore and McLaren sang the national anthem on Senior Night, before Moore had 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals in the 81-50 win over Seton Hall that clinched the Big East regular season title.
Even with all she's accomplished, Moore still feels she has a lot of work to do. There are more national titles to chase, grades to keep up -- she's interested in either broadcast journalism or sports marketing -- and teammates to serve. (Auriemma named her a captain this season, making her just the second sophomore so honored, after senior guard Renee Montgomery, in his tenure at Connecticut.) And there is the continuing refinement of her game. "I want to be one of those players who you watch on film and say, 'Where's the weakness?'" says Moore. "I want to be one of those players like Jason Kidd, who is always in tune with the game and sees several plays ahead. I want people to know something good is going to happen when the ball is in my hand."