WHILE NO team in the men's college game can seem to hold on to the nation's top ranking, no one on the women's side has come close to prying it away from Connecticut. The view from the penthouse has become so familiar to the Huskies—who clinched their 17th regular-season Big East championship in the last 20 years with an 81--50 dismantling of Seton Hall in Hartford last Saturday—that players and fans alike don't get too fired up about anything "unless the words Final Four are attached to it," says coach Geno Auriemma. Recently, while hunting around the team's training room for some workout shorts, he found an old regular-season conference championship trophy underneath a pile of laundry. ("Some teams would have this in a case in their hallway," he cracked.)
The Seton Hall game was a foregone conclusion so early—the Pirates didn't reach double figures until the 7:36 mark of the first half—that most of the 13,372 Huskies partisans in attendance at the largely subterranean XL Center had climbed to street level by the time the Big East trophy presentation got under way. Considering what little drama the Huskies have provided all season, who could expect fans to stay in their seats? The win extended UConn's regular-season streak to 37. (The only loss the Huskies suffered during that span came against Stanford in last year's national championship semifinal.) Heading into their regular-season finale against Rutgers, which was scheduled to be played on Monday night, the Huskies led the nation in scoring offense (they were averaging 85.1 points per game through Sunday) and scoring margin (31.8) and trailed only Xavier in field goal percentage defense (33.2%).
That cool efficiency is a testament to Auriemma's imperious coaching style and his knack for hoarding and rounding out some of the country's best talent. Most teams are lucky to have two go-to scorers; UConn has three. Sophomore forward Maya Moore, the consensus best player in the game, can do it all, including sing the national anthem, which she did a cappella with teammate Kaili McLaren before Saturday's tip-off. (Moore then went off on the Pirates to the tune of 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals in 24 minutes.) Senior point guard Renee Montgomery, one of three Huskies ever to tally 1,500 career points and 500 assists, is the first Connecticut player to have her jersey installed in the school's ring of honor while still active. And junior Tina Charles, in addition to being a rebounding black hole at 8.2 a game, was averaging 16.1 points through Sunday.
The bench is deep too. When shooting guard Caroline Doty went down for the season with a torn left ACL in a game against Syracuse in mid-January, sophomore Lorin Dixon, then freshman Tiffany Hayes stepped in without missing a beat. "They have all the pieces to the puzzle," says Louisville forward Angel McCoughtry. "But the thing that separates them is that the 12th player on their bench is just as intense as Maya Moore. When [that reserve] gets in for those 30 seconds, she's working her butt off."
March 8, 2009
Can anyone stop the Huskies? So far, no one in the Top 25 seems up to the challenge. Third-ranked Oklahoma (25--3), which fell to UConn by 28 in Storrs on Nov. 30, lost a key component when guard Whitney Hand broke her left index finger last week. Similarly, second-ranked Stanford (24--4) misses guard JJ Hones, who tore her left ACL on Nov. 23. Eleventh-ranked North Carolina (25--5) has been bedeviled by inconsistency. Defending national champion Tennessee (20--9), which lost all five starters to the WNBA, is rebuilding, as is Big East archrival Rutgers (18--10), which fell out of the Top 25 on Jan. 26 for the first time in two years. McCoughtry's Cardinals, meanwhile, were blown out by 28 against UConn on Jan. 26.
At this point, it seems the only threat to the Huskies' quest for a sixth national championship is complacency. And even that, Auriemma says, gets quickly overridden by the constant pressure to live up to UConn's singular standard. "Every player who comes [here] looks up to the rafters and goes, Ooh, we've got to win or we're not really Connecticut players," he says. "I like that the expectations are, This is all we know."