The victory tops the 88-game winning streak set by John Wooden's UCLA men's teams from 1971-74, and leaves the UConn women at the top of the list among major-college basketball's longest winning streaks. In the game's waning seconds, the crowd at the XL Center held signs in the air with the number "89," serenading the team with the sweet sounds of those digits. Behind the Florida State bench, fans unfurled a large tribute banner to UConn coach Geno Auriemma. It read THE SORCERER OF STORRS.
"One of the things John Wooden used to always say about competitive greatness is that's having the ability to be your absolute best when your best is needed -- and that's what Maya Moore is," Auriemma said. "Maya during all those 89 games has been at her absolute best when it was absolutely needed."
Ah, yes, Maya Moore. It was a signature performance from the player who has been the face of The Streak. The ethereal 6-foot senior forward finished with a career-high 41 points on 15 of 24 shooting from the field. If Moore leads UConn (11-0) to a third consecutive championship this April in Indianapolis, there will be no argument that she'll go down as the greatest player in women's college basketball history. There's already an argument to be made that she's the GOAT of the women's college game.
"She is the single most efficient player in the history of the women's game," said Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph. "Maya Moore is more capable of any player I've ever seen of putting a team on her shoulders and carrying them."
"She just reminds me of Kobe Bryant," said Florida State coach Sue Semrau. "What player in our game stops and pops like she does?"
Moore scored on driving layups, three-point field goals and mid-range jumpers. She made 10 of 11 from the foul line, and finished with 10 rebounds, three blocks and ZERO turnovers. Had she hit on an open three-pointer with under a minute to go in the opening period, the halftime score would have been MOORE 29, FLORIDA STATE 27. The only drama in the final half was whether Moore would top her career high in points. That came on a driving layup with 2:14 left to push the score to 93-59. She was out 25 seconds later and walked off the court to a standing ovation.
"She is just one of those great athletes who is able to block everything out except what is important," Auriemma said. "She sets her mind to that, she does it, and she's been like that since the day she walked on campus. You know, those comparisons about the streak even go to Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi. I've been asked a million times who is better. Like, how are you going to compare them? But Maya Moore has done something that no one else has ever done in the history of college basketball. She has been on a team that won 89 straight games. ... I don't care if Diana hears this or not but she never won 89 games in a row. So when people start asking me now, 'Who is the greatest player in Connecticut history?' I'm saying Maya Moore."
Whenever the Huskies have needed a momentum-changing basket during their 89-game streak, Moore has imposed her will on the game. With UConn looking a little tight and leading just 8-6 early, she made a hard cut to the top of the three-point key where the ball was waiting for her from junior guard Tiffany Hayes. Moore stroked a three-pointer over her defender and hit a 15-foot jumper on UConn's next possession. Freshman point guard Bria Hartley, who finished with a career-high 21 points and who looks like the program's next star, then scored on a coast-to-coast layup to push the lead to 15-6. UConn eventually pulled away, and the second half existed merely for fans to eat, sing the UConn fight song and participate in The Wave.
When asked how UConn could win this many games in a row, Ohio State coach Jim Foster said the Huskies play harder and longer than any other team in the country. He singled out Moore in his explanation. "I'll point out two instances where Maya Moore made two plays against us late," said Foster, whose team lost to UConn 80-51 last Sunday. "One was a play where she blocked a shot and her team was up 30 points. She could have easily not involved herself in the play, and she made the play. Then, on an inbounds play, we made a cut and got an uncontested look at the basket; she called the group together and jumped on them. That's accountability."
That accountability gets developed in practice. UConn's male practice players will tell you that Auriemma puts his players in impossible situations in practice, often directing seven male players to put full-court pressure on the five UConn women on the court. Practices can be harder than games, and it's the only place where UConn has found failure. Moore is 126-2 during her UConn career.
"I think what we are doing is harder, because you have to build motivation from somewhere else, rather than, 'We just lost,' " Moore said. "It's harder to get motivated when you don't have those actual losses on your record. At practice, Coach puts us in tough situations all the time. When we are doing a defensive drill, for instance, he'll put almost double the [male practice players] out there than we have, and we lose sometimes. That's when you have those failures. So it's not like we never experience that feeling of failing, because it happens in practice. You have to overcome it in practice, and that's what you see on the court."
The atmosphere before the tip was akin to an NCAA tournament game. The game drew 75 credentialed media, including the Boston Globe, New York Times and an armada of ESPN staffers. (The normal press corps for a midseason UConn game would be about 35.) ESPN2 held a one-hour pregame show and ESPNU ran afternoon programming dedicated to UConn and the streak. Sports-talk shows across the country also debated how the streak should be viewed.
"Like it or not like it, we made you pay attention," said Auriemma. "If you want to go back, go back. But for this period of time, you paid attention. You didn't have to do, but you did. It's not my fault that ESPN decided to do a 10-hour thing. It felt like the Kennedy assassination. People in my family were like turn the TV off. But don't blame me. I'm just the messenger. We're just trying to win games. I'm not up here trying to tell you should make any judgments on who is better or who is not. I'm talking about the actual journey taken and how it was done and what these kids did. If you're saying anything less than that, then you are telling Maya Moore and Tiffany Hayes that all these 89 wins that they just did are insignificant."
Among the sellout crowd of 16,294 in Hartford was Greg Wooden, the 47-year-old grandson of John Wooden, who flew in from Newport Beach, Calif., to attend his first women's basketball game.
"My grandfather would have been absolutely thrilled to see his streak broke by a women's basketball team," said Wooden. "He thought the last 10 years the best basketball played at the collegiate level was not by the men. I thought somebody should be here from the family to show support. I know there's been some articles and some players who are not in support of the streak, but my grandfather would have loved to be here to see this."
Greg Wooden can watch UConn go for No. 90 in Stockton, Calif., on Dec. 28 against the University of Pacific. That will be followed two days later by what most consider the toughest test remaining on UConn's schedule: a road game at Stanford. ESPN analysts Doris Burke and Rebecca Lobo both predicted last week that the streak would come to an end in Palo Alto. (For what it's worth, it says here it will continue into 2011.)
Midway through his postgame press conference, Auriemma was interrupted in mid-sentence by a UConn staffer who told him he had a phone call. The voice at the other end of the line? President Barack Obama. The First Fan reminded Auriemma that his team had not lost since he had been inaugurated, and said how much he enjoyed watching Moore and how the UConn players had handled the streak.
"It's an incredible thing that these kids have done," Auriemma told Obama. "And I'm sure some credit goes to that lesson you gave them [the 2008-09 champions] on the White House basketball court. It really paid off and I appreciate you doing that for them."
When the five-minute call ended, and after Auriemma joked that it was UConn's president as opposed to the White House, he was asked what it felt like to hear from Obama after the game.
He shook his head, and for once, Geno Auriemma was nearly speechless. "Things just keep getting more ridiculous by the day," he said.