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Charles returns with Team USA, but also to celebrate her UConn days

Tina Charles is one of five former UConn women’s basketball greats selected for the U.S. national team’s roster to play in Monday’s exhibition against UConn at the XL Center.

While Charles is looking forward to playing alongside fellow former Huskies Sue Bird, Katie Lou Samuelson, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi against the younger generation, Monday’s event holds additional meaning for her that her USA teammates cannot claim.

UConn will celebrate the 10-year anniversaries of the school’s 2009 and 2010 national championship, with at least 13 former players from those teams — including Charles, Tiffany Hayes, Caroline Doty, Kelly Faris, Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore — confirmed to attend. The group will be honored prior to the exhibition’s 7 p.m. tipoff.

UConn’s annual Final Four appearances have often served as unofficial reunions for Husky alums, Charles said. But Monday’s celebration offers a timely opportunity to reflect upon the incredible feats her junior- and senior-year teams accomplished about a decade ago — back-to-back undefeated seasons and a pair of national championships — and how those experiences shaped her as a person.

“Those girls, women now, they molded me into the person and the player that I am,” Charles said. “It was a sisterhood. It was considered family to me.”

After some early disappointments — UConn fell to LSU in the 2007 Elite Eight and to Stanford in the 2008 Final Four — Charles remembers the team realizing they could put together something special as early as the summer leading up to her junior season.

“We were more focused and driven,” she said. “We knew what it would take, and everyone stepped up. Coach Auriemma held us accountable to that.”

The Huskies stormed through the regular season and the NCAA tournament without much trouble, culminating the year with a 76-54 win over Louisville for the program’s first title since 2004. Their 39-0 record was, at the time, the school’s third undefeated campaign, and every game was decided by double digits.

That was just the beginning. With Charles as a senior and Moore a junior the following year, UConn strung together another undefeated regular season, defeating opponents by an average margin of 35.9 points. The team fared similarly through the postseason — up until the 2010 national title game. Infamously, UConn trailed Stanford 20-12 at halftime, the worst half in school history. But even down eight at the break and with nothing seeming to be going right, Charles remembers everyone remaining calm.

“That 2010 title was just like how practices were,” Charles said. “Coach Auriemma really prepares us, where he’ll put us in different scenarios where we’re down against the practice players, and we have to fight our way out, other players step up, and sacrifices are made. So that’s exactly what happened in that game. I don’t think we were rattled at all because we’d been through it in practice.”

Behind Moore’s 18 second-half points, UConn overcame that halftime deficit and captured the national title with a 53-47 win, which also marked the team’s 78th straight victory. From that team, Charles, Kalana Greene, Moore, Hayes, and Faris were later drafted into the WNBA (as was Montgomery the year before).

Charles concluded her UConn career all over the record books, where she remains a decade later. She’s No. 4 all-time in scoring (2,346 points), No. 1 in rebounds (1,367), No. 5 in blocks (304), and No. 2 in double-doubles (52). Her senior season, she won the Wooden, Naismith, and AP player of the the year awards, and was ultimately drafted by the Connecticut Sun with the No. 1 pick.

Since then, Charles, who was traded to the New York Liberty in 2014, has embarked on an illustrious professional career to the tune of seven WNBA All-Star bids, 2010 Rookie of the Year, 2012 WNBA MVP, and two Olympic gold medals.

Her work off the court is just as impressive. She recently produced a two-hour documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and has extensively supported Hopey’s Heart Foundation, which seeks to provide AEDs to schools and other organizations across the country.

To Charles, much of who she is today can be traced back to the place and people she’ll reunite with Monday night.

“I always say that Coach Auriemma didn’t just teach the game of basketball, but the game of life,” Charles said. “(He imparted) being disciplined, being responsible, holding myself accountable in all ways. Just being there for one another and just showing up for one other.”


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