College Basketball

February 25, 2008

A 'Melo Season
The UConn women think Maya Moore can duplicate the feat of another fab freshman and lead them to a title

CONNECTICUT WOMEN'S basketball coach Geno Auriemma is one of the sport's great needlers, an unapologetic wise guy who plays all sorts of mind games to motivate his best players. Before the season he called Maya Moore into his office to test the mettle of his prized freshman. "I really don't know if we are going to be able to win a championship this year with you," he told Moore. "You would have to have a Carmelo Anthony--like freshman year for us, and I really don't know if you have that in you." Moore just stared at her coach with steely eyes. "She gave me a look that said, O.K., that's my next project," Auriemma says. "Obviously, I think she is capable of that. She can't do it by herself, but if we are fortunate enough to be in the championship game, she will be the leading scorer in that game. I guarantee that."

Through Sunday, Moore was averaging a team-high 17.5 points a game and 7.0 rebounds and was shooting 55.7% from the field—including 44.0% from behind the arc—for the top-ranked Huskies (24--1). The 6-foot forward has scored in double figures in all 25 games, with nine games of at least 20 points. "I don't think there is a player in America who has had an impact on her team greater than the impact Maya has had on ours," Auriemma says. That has been by necessity. Auriemma put Moore into the starting lineup nine games into the season after junior guard Kalana Greene was lost with a season-ending right ACL tear in December. Four weeks later senior guard Mel Thomas suffered the same injury. "[Maya] has had to be counted on even more," Auriemma says. "I've told her, 'You have to impact the game right from the first possession.'"

Auriemma says the 18-year-old Moore is the most-prepared freshman he has ever coached, two-time Naismith Award winner Diana Taurasi included. When she arrived in Storrs last May, Moore asked for game tapes of UConn's 10 toughest Big East opponents. ("Just to get that mental edge," Moore says.) Moore was the national player of the year last season at Collins Hill High (Suwanee, Ga.), where she won three state titles as the Eagles went 125--3 in four seasons. Still, she takes nothing for granted. She is the last player to leave the floor at every practice, shooting extra free throws and three-pointers. Her goals are at once simple and ambitious. "Hopefully after each year and after my four years in college, I'll have given something that people have never seen before," she says.

A devout Christian, Moore is as serious about academics as she is about basketball, finishing her first semester with a 3.85 GPA (four A's and one B—"World Regional Geography," she says, laughing, of the course that was her kryptonite).

Her only weak performance on the court came against Rutgers, which held her scoreless in the first half of UConn's lone defeat, a 73--71 loss on Feb. 5—though Moore did score 15 second-half points. Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer nevertheless was impressed. "Best player in the next decade," says Stringer. "Strong, powerful, poised. Can dribble, shoot, rebound. She can do it all, and she's only a freshman. I mean, a freshman! Three more years of that?" Stringer simply shakes her head.

FREE AT SI.COM More on UConn in Tracy Schultz's Power Rankings.

Impact Freshmen

ANGIE BJORKLUND, F, Tennessee
The sharp-shooting 6-footer (right) leads the No. 3--ranked Lady Vols with 55 three-pointers and averages 10.3 points per game.

JANTEL LAVENDER, C, Ohio State
The 6'4" Cleveland native is the top scorer (17.6 points a game) and rebounder (9.7) for the No. 20 Buckeyes.

KAYLA PEDERSEN, F, Stanford
A 6'4" presence in the low post, Pedersen averages 12.9 points and is second on the team in rebounding with 8.3 boards a game for the seventh-ranked Cardinal.

PHOTOSTEPHEN SLADEDRIVE BY Moore may be the first rookie in 30 years to lead UConn in points per game. PHOTORANDY SNYDER/ICON SMI (BJORKLUND)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)