Geno deadpans his way to history
When Geno Auriemma is stumped by something, he generally turns to his wit to get him off the hook. In this case, asked over and over by fans and pundits for answers to the how and the why of an 87-game winning streak, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team invokes sarcasm.
"We have to go down as the greatest team that's ever played in the history of basketball," Auriemma said with a grin, asked recently about the potential for win No. 88, which would tie UConn with the UCLA men of the 1970s for the most consecutive wins in the history of Division I basketball.
"I think Dr. Naismith (inventor of basketball) would be proud of us."
Top-ranked UConn, which is 9-0 this season following two unbeaten national championship seasons, plays for consecutive win No. 88 at 2:30 p.m. today at hallowed Madison Square Garden in New York, meeting 11th-ranked Ohio State as part of the Maggie Dixon Classic.
If that one goes in the books as a W, win No. 89, to break the UCLA record, would come Tuesday night at the XL Center in Hartford against Florida State.
Auriemma, meanwhile, tries to deflect the attention this streak has wrought, with phone calls from Time, Sports Illustrated, HBO and The New York Times. Don't try to understand it, he says of the streak. It's not comprehensible. Don't try to compare it to UCLA, Auriemma says, nor himself to the late, iconic UCLA coach John Wooden. They're not comparable.
And yet, there are others who will say what Auriemma does not dare, that absolutely the two streaks can be linked. Even those who played for UCLA themselves.
"I'm gonna watch it," said Pete Trgovich, a 1975 UCLA graduate who played for Wooden, asked in a telephone interview about today's UConn-Ohio State matchup.
"If they do break the record, they'll have the longest winning streak in college basketball. When we played, it was the most dominant time any college program has ever had. The girls at UConn are doing the same thing. … I don't think that's going to take away from what we did. We had it for 36, 37 years. I'm content with that."
'... made to be broken'
UCLA's streak lasted from Jan. 23, 1971, a win over Cal Santa Barbara, to Jan. 19, 1974, a 71-70 loss to Notre Dame. UCLA led that game 70-59 with little more than three and a half minutes remaining, but was outscored 12-0 down the stretch.
The streak encompassed three national championships (1971-73), the last of the Bruins' seven straight national championships. UCLA won the title again in 1975, Wooden's 10th in what was the final game of a storied coaching career.
"I was very lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I got to be a part of the dynasty," said Trgovich, a member of the Bruins' starting backcourt. "We would always laugh about it … what if we would have hit that shot at the end? Nobody would have cared about the Notre Dame game.
"It was a time. We never thought we'd lose. As crazy as that seems right now, it was an attainable goal back then."
Trgovich said he watched UConn's game against then-No. 2 Baylor on Nov. 16 this season, a 65-64 victory in which the Huskies came from behind.
One of the other personalities from Notre Dame's historic defeat of UCLA was Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, now an analyst for
ESPN. Phelps had the opportunity to help broadcast a UConn game last year when ESPN GameDay highlighted its first women's game featuring the Huskies against Notre Dame.
Phelps, too, watched on TV as UConn beat Baylor.
"Baylor didn't know what to do," Phelps said in a telephone interview. "They were up eight and they said, 'We can win this game.' And Geno stole it from 'em. Geno, to me, is like John Wooden, with the championships he's had, the consistency he's had.
"… The most important thing is, any streak is made to be broken. Any number is made to be broken. They're going after Wooden's streak."
UConn has won seven national championships, the first in 1995. The Huskies won three in a row from 2002-04 and are trying to do so again.
Auriemma, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., as well as the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., is 744-122 in his 26th season with all seven of the program's titles in 11 Final Fours.
The Huskies also won 70 straight games between 2001-03, breaking Louisiana Tech's women's Division I record of 54 consecutive wins from 1980-82. That UConn streak was snapped by Villanova in the 2003 Big East tournament championship game, 52-48.
On March 8 of this year UConn once again made history, beating Notre Dame 59-44 in the Big East tournament semifinals for its 71st straight win. Auriemma laughed at the time when asked if he was considered the Wooden of women's basketball.
"Not by anyone I know," Auriemma deadpanned.
It is yet to be determined who the streak-buster will be this time.
There's little doubt, however, that this streak has generated a great measure of respect among Auriemma's fellow coaches, both from the men's and women's game.
"It's almost an impossible thing to do," said Syracuse men's coach Jim Boeheim, also a member of the Hall of Fame, in a telephone interview. "It's been done once and now it can be done again. I think it's an incredible streak. In today's world, there's a lot of good teams out there."
Boeheim reiterated what many of UConn's opposing coaches have said, that in addition to talent, Auriemma's teams play with the ultimate level of intensity every game, no matter the score.
"Geno's teams play hard," Boeheim said. "They play like they're the underdog every night. His teams play like they need to win the game. It's a very difficult thing to do as a coach, get them ready to play every single night."
"They walk on the court with a confidence," Marquette women's coach Terri Mitchell said after her team's loss to UConn on Dec. 9, which made win No. 87. "I think this streak needs to be celebrated by everyone."
This season's UConn team has five freshmen on a roster of 10 healthy players, causing Auriemma to off-handedly comment during the offseason that if this team is unbeaten by the end of December, he'll retire on the spot.
There's always a chance the Huskies won't be. They have No. 11 Ohio State today, No. 15 Florida State on Tuesday and No. 3 Stanford on Dec. 30 in Palo Alto, Calif., a rematch of last year's national championship game.
Then again, the Huskies already beat No. 2 Baylor in an early-season matchup, and UConn has the best player in the country in Maya Moore, the two-time Wade Trophy winner as national player of the year.
"Our whole thing the last couple of years is to put ourselves in the position to win a national championship," Auriemma said of the rising win total. "That's still the goal going in. Whether or not there is any pressure with any of the wins, I don't feel it. I don't sense that (the players) feel it.
"… We already have the streak. We've already won more games than any other women's basketball team ever in a row. So whatever happens, happens."
Streaks by the numbers
UConn 29 UCLA 18
Margin of victory
UConn 33.3 UCLA 23.5
UConn 2 UCLA 16
TEAMS UCONN HAS BEATEN DURING THE STREAK (87)
4 times - Louisville, Notre Dame, South Florida.
3 times - Florida State, Holy Cross, Marquette, Rutgers, Stanford, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia.
2 times - Baylor, Cincinnati, DePaul, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Hartford, Louisiana State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, Vermont.
1 time - Arizona State, Brigham Young, California, Clemson, Duke, Florida, Hofstra, Howard, Iona, Iowa State, Lehigh, Northeastern, Northern Colorado, Penn State, Rhode Island, Richmond, Sacred Heart, San Diego State, South Carolina, Southern, Temple, Texas, Washington.
TEAMS UCLA BEAT DURING THE STREAK (88)
6 times - California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Southern Cal, Washington, Washington State.
4 times - Notre Dame.
2 times - UC Santa Barbara, Chicago Loyola, Iowa, Long Beach State, San Francisco.
1 time - Arizona State, Arkansas, Bradley, Brigham Young, Citadel, Denver, Drake, Florida State, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Louisville, Maryland, Memphis, Michigan, N.C. State, Ohio, Ohio State, Pacific, Pittsburgh, Providence, Santa Clara, Southern Methodist, St. Bonaventure, Texas Christian, Texas, Texas A&M, Villanova, Weber State, Wisconsin, Wyoming.
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