Before the back-to-back national championships, before the comparisons to the UCLA men's basketball teams, and long before the gender debate over how to view a college basketball winning streak, there was MaChelle Joseph and her scrappy young team from Georgia Tech.
In an unexpectedly tight battle at Gampel Pavilion on Nov. 16, 2008, an unheralded Georgia Tech team pushed No. 1-ranked UConn to the brink. Despite lacking UConn's star power and having 10 freshmen and sophomores on their roster, the Yellow Jackets played fearless basketball, pressing the Huskies for 40 minutes, showing no intimidation. At halftime the game was tied at 34, the crowd of 8,871 was stunned, and Joseph told her players that this was a game they could win.
Eventually, though, UConn junior star center Tina Charles and a sophomore named Maya Moore led the Huskies to a 82-71 victory. It was the first win in a streak that has since become a national story. On Sunday UConn won its 88th consecutive game, equaling the record for consecutive wins by a Division I basketball team set by the UCLA men from 1971-74. UConn goes for No. 89 Tuesday night against No. 22 Florida State at Hartford's XL Center.
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Not surprisingly, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the games that have stood out most during the streak have been the tight ones, including last year's national championship against Stanford. At halftime the score looked like something from an NFL game: STANFORD 20, UCONN 12. He also cited this year's taut 65-64 win over No. 2 Baylor in Hartford, and the victory over Georgia Tech that started it all. "We really got overwhelmed by them in the first half," Auriemma said of Georgia Tech. "Nobody paid attention to it, but that was one of the most difficult games we had during this."
"We brought that game up again when we played them this year [a 71-51 UConn win on Nov. 21]," Joseph said this week. "We were the ones that started the streak, and how great a story it would have been if we had ended it, too."
But with metronome-like consistency, UConn keeps writing a story with the same ending. They win, you lose.
UConn's dominance is unquestioned. But what has since become a topic is how to view the streak compared to the UCLA men. As Jack McCallum wrote recently in his terrific SI profile of UConn, comparisons across gender and time are both invidious and impossible. The one common trait the two teams share: They represent excellence and exceptionalism. "This is something that stands on its own merits," said Auriemma. "I don't compare myself or view myself in context with any other coach, especially someone like John Wooden. The Top 10 stories of 2010? One of them was the death of John Wooden. You can go anywhere in the world and say 'John Wooden' and people will think, 'Oh, yes, UCLA, 10 national championships.' Well, hopefully I'll live to be 98 or 99, but I don't think people will be saying that about me."
What Auriemma does share with Wooden -- along with a fondness for backdoor cuts and women's basketball -- is year-after-year success. UConn has won seven national titles under Auriemma and has dominated the sport the past three seasons. The Huskies' margin of victory during the streak is 33.3 points. UConn is 30-0 against ranked teams (winning by a margin of 24.8 points), including 17-0 against teams ranked in the top 10 (winning those games by an average of 23.9 points). The Huskies have been outrebounded only eight times over their last 88 games, grabbing 1,073 more rebounds than their opponents. They have been ranked No. 1 by The Associated Press for 50 consecutive weeks. (For those who must compare, UCLA's margin of victory during its streak was 23 points, and the Bruins beat 10 top-10 opponents during their run.).
"It's nearly impossible to do: they have overcome all the things that we go through during a season, whether it's injuries, foul trouble or travel, and they've overcome it on an everyday basis," said Pittsburgh men's coach Jamie Dixon, who watched UConn's 81-50 rout of Ohio State on Sunday at Madison Square Garden at the tournament named for his late sister Maggie, the former Army women's basketball coach. "It is remarkable. They are measured against their peers and have done what has never been done before. That is what we are all striving to do."
Women's basketball coaches and supporters argue that the real debate is whether the streak has received enough mainstream coverage and respect. "It is not getting the storyline and publicity it deserves," said Joseph, the Georgia Tech coach. "We're living in an era of basketball history that is unheard of. You talk about John Wooden's UCLA streak -- well, this is a streak we will talk about for a long time in women's basketball. I honestly believe it has been downplayed. This is one of the greatest accomplishments that any women's basketball team, coach, or program has ever experienced, and it hasn't been talked about in the news media the way it should be."
Auriemma banged that drum after beating Ohio State and also did so in a revealing interview with Time magazine earlier this month. "Everything should be celebrated equally," Auriemma told Time. "So you have the male-chauvinist guys going, 'How dare they compare what they're doing to what the men did.' Then you've got the women's side going, 'Well, it should be celebrated, because if the women beat the men's record, it's our record.' Maybe the men feel threatened and the women are insecure. I don't know if one has to be at the expense of the other. ... We're just trying to win basketball games. We're not here to slay the dragon of UCLA."
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Though the historical significance of tonight's game is big, the staff's focus remains unchanged. The team held its regular 3 p.m. practice Monday and will have its usual game-day shootaround today. Auriemma said he will remind the players that even though it's a big night, the endgame is the same: a national championship. "I don't want them thinking we're finished Tuesday," Auriemma said. "We have lots of basketball coming up the rest of the season."