Tuesday March 9th, 2010

HARTFORD, Conn. --- As Geno Auriemma left the locker room with his assistants for the second half of a game that was much closer than anyone in the state of Connecticut had imagined, the UConn coach could not resist mocking the monster he's created over the past two seasons.

"Come on, it's impossible for us to lose, right?" Auriemma announced to his staff. "There's just no way. We're going to win 97 in a row, right? Do you know how easy it is? Do you know? All you have to do is listen to what everybody says."

It wasn't easy Monday night. Holding a three-point lead at halftime against a gritty Notre Dame team, UConn rode improved second-half shooting and another standout game from All-America senior center Tina Charles (16 points, 17 rebounds) to a 59-44 victory in the Big East tournament semifinals at the XL Center in Hartford. The win set a new Division I NCAA record for most consecutive victories, with 71.

"We know how special our team is, and we know what kind of special thing we've got going the past couple of years," said junior forward Maya Moore, who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

Barring a Buster Douglas-like performance from West Virginia in the final of the Big East Tournament, UConn will win No. 72 shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday. If the team cuts down the nets at the national championship in San Antonio on April 6, it will enter next season on a 78-game winning streak.

"The talent pool that he has and continues to recruit is dominant," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt told SI.com by phone from the SEC Tournament. "We're seeing history in the making. It's all about getting great players, and then obviously he is a very talented coach and a great motivator."

Auriemma has been loath to talk about the streak this season, and the Connecticut media are conditioned not to expect a direct answer from the coach or one without a healthy dose of righteous indifference. UConn changed nothing about its usual pregame routine Monday night. The team arrived at XL Center 90 minutes before tipoff and went about its business. About the only thing Auriemma did to tempt fate was park in a spot with No. 13 on it. (Auriemma: "I said, 'Screw it. I'm spitting in the face of superstition.' Then at halftime I was like, 'Go move my car.'")

Auriemma did admit after the game that he has carried a book by John Wooden in his briefcase for the past year, but for no reason other than he admires the UCLA coach. "I look through millions of things all year long to get an idea here and there, but for some reason this has stayed in my briefcase," he said.

"He is perhaps the most superstitious coach in college basketball when it comes to discussing the future," said Hartford Courant reporter John Altavilla, who has covered every game of the streak. "He does not like to test fate by talking about records. His face actually looks pained when he's forced to."

That makes him similar to Summitt, who said she never talked about her streak when Tennessee won 46 consecutive games between 1996 and 1998. "I never really even thought about it, because I didn't know when the loss would come," Summitt said. "We had a focused group and kept things in perspective."

Of course, it's hard to keep perspective when you look at the bulging numbers. The Huskies have won all 71 consecutive games by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 32.5 points. During the streak UConn is 23-0 against teams ranked in the Top 25 and 13-0 against teams in the Top 10. Two teams (Rutgers and Notre Dame) kept the defeat to 10 points last season. The closest game this season was an 80-68 win over No. 2 Stanford on December 23.

UConn broke its own NCAA Division I record, a 70-game winning streak set by the 2001-03 Huskies. That team finished 39-0 in 2001-02 and won its first 31 games of 2002-03 before Villanova defeated them in the Big East tournament final. That streak, which lasted from Nov. 9, 2001, to March 11, 2003, included six single-digit wins and 18 wins over ranked opponents. Unlike this team, which features two future No. 1 overall picks in the WNBA draft in Moore and Charles, the previous streak was defined by Auriemma's tasking Diana Taurasi to lead an inexperienced team that had graduated four first-round WNBA picks (Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams).

Notre Dame has a history of ending long winning streaks, including Oklahoma football's 47-game winning streak in the 1950s, North Carolina's 92-game winning streak in women's soccer in the 1990s and most famously, UCLA's 88-game winning streak in men's basketball (1971-74). But the Irish had given little reason to think Monday night would be special. In January, with Notre Dame the country's No. 3 team, ESPN selected the UConn-Notre Dame game for the first broadcast of its popular "College Gameday" at a women's basketball game. The game was a bust, a 24-point win for UConn, which scored 24 of the game's first 28 points.

But the Irish hung tough Monday night in the opening half, thanks to their gritty play and an awful shooting display by UConn. By the end of the first half, as fans gawked at the scoreboard that read UCONN 25, NOTRE DAME 23, the Huskies had put up their lowest-scoring half since March 26, 2007, when they trailed LSU 34-22 at the break and ultimately lost 73-50. UConn shot 10 of 27 (37 percent) in the first 20 minutes, and even those numbers were bolstered by a couple of layups by Charles. Moore and fifth-year senior forward Kalana Greene were a combined 3 of 15, and when the first-half buzzer sounded, Notre Dame players bounded off the court to music from the team's marching band. You wondered where Rudy Ruettiger was hiding out in the XL Center.

Life returned to normal in the second half. UConn hit nine of its first 13 shots, and Greene (who was 6 of 9 from the field in the second half and finished with 15 points) finally found her game. "We played God awful in those first two games [against UConn] and today we played like ourselves," Notre Dame freshman guard Skylar Diggins said. "We played with a sense of urgency. We were more tenacious. We really got in there and banged with them, and we didn't get punked this time. We stuck with them, but they went on their run in the second half and we couldn't match it."

Of course, as the wins keep piling up, the questions about whether UConn's dominance is good for the sport will keep coming. The Huskies are 371-28 overall since the 1999-2000 season and have now played 222 consecutive games without allowing an opponent to shoot more than 50 percent from the field (Boston College was the last to do so, on March 8, 2004).

"It's not their fault, but it's not a great thing for the sport," Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer told USA Today. "How can anybody enjoy a game that is really not much of a competition?"

Counters ESPN analyst Doris Burke: "Did anyone ask John Wooden when he was in midst of the 88-game streak, 'Is this good for men's college basketball?' It didn't happen. If they are beating your ass on a nightly basis, then get better."

The locals, at least, cannot get enough. Last week The Hartford Courant ran a countdown clock on its Web site, marking the time until the tipoff against Notre Dame.

"The interest is intense and intensifying every day," said Altavilla.

The media for Auriemma will heat up a bit this week: He's been requested by ESPN's SportsCenter, Pardon The Interruption and First Take. Shortly before he left the XL Center, a reporter asked UConn's coach if he was any less superstitious these days.

"I used to be more superstitious before Tina and Maya got here," Auriemma said with a smile. "But I'm less superstitious now."

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