Making A Run at Perfection

Connecticut's fourth undefeated season isn't enough for coach Geno Auriemma. No, he won't be satisfied until his Huskies deliver 40 minutes of mistake-free basketball
March 21, 2010

In retrospect, maybe Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma should have seen another perfect season coming. Before the Huskies' first game, against Northeastern, he wrote 50 on the locker room whiteboard, setting the limit on how many points the visitors should be allowed. When he returned a while later, a player had crossed out 50 and written 40.

"I said, 'You guys are out of your minds—they're going to have 40 by halftime,'" recalls Auriemma. "I say stuff like that, and it pisses them off. So we play eight or nine games, and teams can't get to 40, can't get to 50. I'm like, These guys are taking this seriously! This is a big deal to them! A team is at 38, 39, and guys on the bench are screaming, 'Get in your stance! Rotate over!'"

If this women's basketball season ends as nearly everyone expects, with UConn winning in dominating style its second consecutive NCAA title and seventh overall, the coach's offhanded button pushing might be recalled as the catalyst for a season in which the Huskies extended their unbeaten streak to a record 78 games.

Four months ago Auriemma couldn't imagine that he would be closing in on another perfect season—his fourth in 15 years in Storrs—as the NCAA tournament started. "I always knew why all the other teams went undefeated," he says. "This one I don't know why. I'm as baffled as anyone. Not that we [have gone] undefeated yet."

Most observers would agree this edition of the Huskies isn't as good as last year's, which was led by the feisty, fast-talking senior All-America point guard Renee Montgomery, let alone the 2001--02 championship squad, which boasted four of the top six picks in the 2002 WNBA draft plus all-world sophomore guard Diana Taurasi. Unlike either of those teams or the 1994--95 squad, which featured Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti, this UConn squad doesn't have a great point guard, an outspoken leader or a single starter so nastily competitive that she'll "rip your heart out"—Auriemma's words—the way Rizzotti, Taurasi or Montgomery would.

Yet, in the end, this group is more dominant than those heralded predecessors. With their 60--32 Big East tournament championship game victory over No. 9 West Virginia on March 9, the Huskies had vanquished their last 72 opponents by double-digit margins. Deploying what Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw says is the best man-to-man defense she's seen at UConn, the Huskies are on pace to set NCAA season records for scoring margin (34.8 points per game), fewest points allowed (46.8 per game) and lowest field goal percentage allowed (30.5).

As usual, Connecticut has national player of the year candidates: 6-foot junior forward Maya Moore, who won the award last season, and 6'4" senior center Tina Charles, an indomitable inside force who is likely to take it this year. However, none of their teammates are All-America caliber. (Senior guard Kalana Greene was the only other Husky named to the 11-player All--Big East team.) "I know when I've had the best talent position by position," says Auriemma. "This year I don't, not by a long shot."

Well, the rest of the women's field isn't as strong as usual, either. Perennial powers Rutgers (19--14) and North Carolina (18--11) struggled, and UConn nemesis Tennessee, which staggered through the 2008--09 season, has only recently looked like the Lady Vols of old. "My theory is that [the Huskies] don't get anybody's best game," says Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, whose team lost to Connecticut 76--60 on Feb. 15. "Typically, when you're the best team in the country, you're going to get everyone else's best shot. I think [the Huskies] moved beyond that to some kind of ethereal place where [their opponents] are beat before they even start."

And when the game does start, says Coale, "the magic of Connecticut lies in how hard they play. Everyone wants to talk about how great their players are—and they are—but you don't beat people by the margin that they beat people unless you are incredibly disciplined to compete on every possession."

Auriemma often talks about the quest for the perfect game—he is fond of Vince Lombardi's line, "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence"—and this year he has found a particularly receptive audience. "Everybody here accepts the quest for the perfect game," says Moore. "We know we're not going to get it. We're going to make mistakes. But we go into every game thinking we won't have breakdowns. We're going to run hard, get every rebound we can, make every shot that we take."

That pursuit of flawless play begins with the start of each practice. "There's a certain level of play and effort that is expected the second you walk on the court, for the entire time that you're there," says associate head coach Chris Dailey. That means when each session begins with the players running two laps around the court, there's no cutting corners. ("CD would have our heads!" senior forward Meghan Gardler says of Dailey.) Lazy passes, late rotations and poorly positioned screens are not tolerated.

Some coaches keep to a strict practice regimen: seven minutes for this drill, six minutes for that one. Not Auriemma. He might spend an hour going over one half-court set. Let's say his players run the set for eight possessions and only two result in a basket or offensive rebound. Auriemma then considers: Were there eight good shots but only two went in? Was there poor movement or poor ball screening? "We're not going to move [to the next drill] until those eight possessions are the kind of eight possessions that I would want with the game on the line—each ending up as a bucket or an offensive rebound," he says.

Auriemma will also put his players in extreme situations, such as pitting four against six. Such exercises are as mentally challenging as they are physically exhausting. "But when it's five-on-five against other teams," says Greene, "it's easy."

During games UConn players stay fixated on the details, ignoring the scoreboard. "We don't think about the game," says Greene. "We know we're going to win—that's our mentality. We try to win every possession. We'll be up by 40, but we're still trying to win that next possession. Every TV timeout we'll say, 'Let's go on a 6--0 run or an 8--0 run!' That's what keeps us going, trying to make little games out of the big game."

That explains the almost cruel way the Huskies crush opponents. "This team, when they get someone down, they really put them away," says former UConn forward Meghan Pattyson Culmo, now a TV analyst. "Suddenly they are up 25. It's relentless."

Just as important as scoring is the offensive rebound that leads to a pass that leads to a bucket, the dive for a loose ball that leads to a fast break, the cut that leads to a screen that leads to a three. "With Connecticut, it's like what the musician Artur Schnabel said—and I'm paraphrasing—'It's not the notes, it's the pauses between the notes; that's where the art lies,'" says Coale. "It's not necessarily the play that they run but the way they cut to set up the play that they are going to run."

The Huskies have approached perfection a few times this season. In the first half of an 88--47 rout of then No. 7 North Carolina on Jan. 9, UConn shot 59.5%, grabbed 31 rebounds, including 10 offensive boards, and forced seven turnovers while making the correct passes, rotating on defense and getting the ball in to Charles. Auriemma even allowed that they had come "pretty damn close" to perfection for 20 minutes. Similarly, in the first 10 minutes against then No. 3 Notre Dame a week later, the Huskies played so well—they led 26--6 at one point—that "they could have beaten the Lakers," said McGraw, whose Irish absorbed three beatdowns by UConn this season.

Connecticut's discipline and precision also provide easy-to-overlook benefits. For instance, though they play as aggressively as any team in the country, the Huskies are whistled for a mere 12.4 fouls per game, fewest in the nation. (Charles played 37 minutes at Oklahoma without committing a single infraction.) That means they haven't had to expose their primary weakness—their bench.

So how can opponents break through a seemingly invulnerable force? They can match UConn's effort possession by possession, as Oklahoma did, and make a high percentage of their shots, which the Sooners did not. Or they can hope providence—fate, not the middle-of-the-pack Big East team—intervenes. Says McGraw, only half-joking, "I was hoping Maya and Tina would get the flu right before they played us."

Truth is, a team that relies so heavily on two stars is especially vulnerable if one or both is beset by injury or illness. Auriemma says this squad reminds him most of his 1996--97 team, a group that destroyed all comers by an average of 26.4 points until freshman Shea Ralph blew out an ACL in an NCAA first-round game against Lehigh. That apparently indomitable team lost to eventual champion Tennessee by 10 in the Elite Eight and finished 33--1. Yet when Greene says, "It's all very fragile," she is still talking about possessions—how a missed pass or offensive rebound can turn the tide of a game and "really hurt us."

With such microscopic focus, the Huskies remain, by all accounts, largely oblivious to the big picture. (Streak, what streak?) Auriemma's postgame announcement that Charles had set school career records in scoring and rebounding during the 76--51 win over Notre Dame in the regular-season finale took her teammates—who were steamed that they had allowed the Irish to score more than 50 points—by surprise. "I love coaching this team," says Auriemma. "I loved coaching last year's team more, because Renee knew exactly what I wanted before I said it. This year it's a lot more reminding them of things they already know."

Well, no one said these Huskies were perfect. At least, not yet.

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"We're going to make mistakes," says Moore. "But we go into every game thinking we won't."

Auriemma can't figure out how UConn is undefeated: "I'm as baffled as anyone."

The 6'4" Charles, an indomitable force, is likely to succeed Moore as national player of the year.

PHOTOPhotograph by BILL FRAKESON A ROLL With starters (left to right) Greene, Charles, Caroline Doty, Moore and Tiffany Hayes producing big leads, the Huskies have 72 straight wins—and counting. PHOTOSTEPHEN SLADEMAYA CULPA Moore, the reigning national player of the year, was responsible for leading a (relatively) thin team. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (AURIEMMA) PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID GONZALESEND-TO-END THREAT Stanford's hard-charging guard Gold-Onwude was the Pac-10 co--defensive player of the year (box, page 69). PHOTOPhotograph by MATT CASHORE/US PRESSWIREINSIDE JOB Charles had team-high averages of 19.0 points and 12.8 rebounds in three wins over Notre Dame. PHOTOPhotograph by SCOTT BRUHNCOOL CUSTOMER Griffin, a native of Eagle River, Alaska, was the only player in the Big 12 to average a double double, leading the Cornhuskers to a 30--1 record (box, opposite).

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