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Top Dogs

This story appears in the April 20, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.

With its litany of rules about decorum, appearance and respect for others -- players are not allowed to have visible tattoos, use iPods in public or wear dresses or skirts without stockings -- the Connecticut women's basketball program run by coach Geno Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey has been likened to Catholic school. But the comparison only goes so far. In putting together a perfect 39-0 season that ended with a 76-54 win over Louisville in the NCAA title game in St. Louis on April 7, the Huskies showed opponents neither charity nor mercy, going on devastating scoring runs that often put games out of reach by the 25th minute. "Last year if a game was close, it might have stayed close," says junior guard Kalana Greene. "This year we took a lead and stretched it. We had poise, experience, a killer instinct and a take-no-prisoners defense."

The Huskies, who had been upset by Stanford in last year's national semifinals, were the preseason favorites to win a sixth national title, but few foresaw a third perfect season for the program. The team's Big Three -- 6-foot sophomore forward Maya Moore, the consensus player of the year, and All-Americas Renee Montgomery, a 5' 7" senior point guard, and Tina Charles, a 6' 4" junior center -- made the team look strong on paper, but there were difficulties to overcome.

UConn lost its top recruit, national high school player of the year Elena Delle Donne, last summer before she'd even played a game at UConn. She enrolled at Delaware, citing basketball burnout, and played volleyball last fall instead of hoops. The Huskies also lost starting shooting guard Caroline Doty, a freshman, to a torn left ACL in mid-January.

Even with a shallower bench than usual -- only eight players averaged more than 11 minutes per game -- UConn found a way to beat every opponent by double digits, something no previous Division I team had done.

The Huskies ran the table not because they pursued perfection in the win-loss column, but because they sought it in every possession. As with all of Auriemma's teams the players were constantly reminded of their weaknesses. Even after blowouts he'd show his players a "low-light" tape before practice the next day that featured all the little things they didn't do well. After a subpar defensive effort in a 76-63 win over LSU in January the Huskies had to endure 2 1/2 hours of defensive drills. "It was terrible, but he got his point across," says Montgomery. "Even though we can outscore most teams, we don't want to be a team that just does that."

For Auriemma, who is now 6-0 in NCAA title games, winning isn't the point. "The NBA is all about winning, but at this level winning doesn't make you happy," he says. "You can win, play lousy, and in my program, feel lousy. To me it's about: How good can we be?"

This year's Huskies showed that a team with the right mix of stars and role players, exceptional chemistry and, yes, a killer instinct can be very good indeed. The Huskies will have every starter back except Montgomery, and they'll add Kelly Faris, a McDonald's All-American guard from Indianapolis. But will they find that unbeatable combination and go undefeated again? One thing is certain: As long as Auriemma is in charge, the standards will remain uncompromisingly high. As Auriemma's daughter Alysa, a 23-year-old aspiring actress, noted on her blog last week, her dad was eager to watch the championship game on tape when the family returned to Connecticut on April 8. "So we did," she wrote, "and he proceeded to complain the entire game. Some things never change."

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