Husky Women’s Basketball Moves Toward History

<p>The women's basketball team celebrates another victory. Photo by Steve Slade</p>
The women's basketball team celebrates another victory. Photos by Steve Slade

The national focus on the Husky women’s basketball team, as it moves toward possibly surpassing the record 88-game winning streak of the 1971-1974 UCLA men’s team, has not quite reached the level of the 1973 Battle of the Sexes in tennis between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

No. 1-ranked UConn tied the unbeaten streak of John Wooden’s UCLA team on Sunday with an 81-50 win over No. 11 Ohio State in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden. And they can own the streak by defeating No. 15 Florida State on Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN2) at the XL Center in Hartford.

Apples and oranges?

Beyond having a Hall of Fame coach leading each team, it is not simple to compare teams of men and women from different eras playing schedules of varying competition for their respective time periods. In the minds of some veteran reporters, because men’s and women’s basketball records are maintained separately, discussion of the teams is an interesting debate but the two are not comparable – even 37 years after King’s defeat of Riggs began a landmark shift toward equality for women competing in sports.

“My only contention is that men’s and women’s basketball are really like two different sports,” says Phil Chardis, assistant sports editor of the Manchester Journal Inquirer, who has covered UConn athletics for years. “I don’t even know why you would want to compare them. Do you want to compare numbers? That’s fine. It just so happens they both play basketball, but they are not the same kind of basketball. When the NCAA lists coaching championships, it’s not John Wooden, Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, and Bobby Knight. It’s John Wooden and Bobby Knight over here. It’s Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma over there.”

Practice makes perfect

Doris Burke of ESPN, one of the few analysts to cover both men’s and women’s college basketball, is also not interested in fanning the flames of a UConn women-UCLA men debate.

<p>Coach Gino Auriemma explains strategy. Photo by Steve Slade</p>
Coach Geno Auriemma talks strategy with his team.

“I have no interest in comparing the [UConn] streak to UCLA. It stands on its own merit,” she says. “The streak for me represents extraordinary consistency in habits by UConn. Over the years, I have encouraged people who ask me why they are so good to take in a practice. They win games because they are willing to pay the price every single day to prepare properly. There is an accepted level of responsibility to putting on that Husky jersey. Any player the staff recruits comes in understanding there is a certain standard to be met every day.”

Paul Assaiante, head coach of the men’s squash team at Trinity College in Hartford, which as of its winter break has won 228 consecutive matches over the past 12 years, understands Auriemma’s approach to handling the winning streak, even as he tries to continue his own team’s record performance.

“Though we’ve won three times the number of contests, I wouldn’t trade places with him,” Assaiante says. “Streaks are a ploy to pull you out of the moment. You work hard to accomplish this [record]. But like the old saying goes, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ There’s no benefit from it. On the first day of practice this year, I held up a sheet with 224 written on it and tore it up.”

Performing in the moment

Assaiante says focusing attention on a winning streak or anything else that can be a distraction will affect how well the team will play during a game.

“It’s about performing in the moment,” he says. “When [UConn] gets on a basketball floor, they’ve got to be focused on the job at hand. If your mind is on something that other people have done and you’ve contributed a little bit, that can only affect your performance.”

<p>Freshman Bria Hartley. Photo by Steve Slade</p>
Freshman Bria Hartley.

After a game won by the Huskies, it is not uncommon for opposing coaches to note how hard Auriemma’s team works on each play, whether offense or defense, something they don’t often see when playing other teams. Even the most experienced coaches express some astonishment.

“They just deny the ball and get every rebound,” says Van Chancellor, head women’s basketball coach for Louisiana State University and a former WNBA and U.S. Olympic coach. “What UConn does so well is that they execute everything so well, every play that they have. They do a really good job at what they do, and it’s hard to stop that.”

In recent weeks, after UConn has notched another win, reporters have asked coaches about the confidence the Huskies project from the moment they arrive on the court for pre-game warm-ups.

“I am amazed with the psychology of this team,” says Terri Mitchell, head coach of Marquette. “They play the game expecting to win. They walk on the court with a confidence.”

Opposing coaches are also asked about how intimidated their players might be before facing the Huskies, whom they see on television and suddenly find standing next them on the hardwood.

“Every time UConn takes the court, there’s a whole bunch of gals dreaming of playing for UConn and Geno and they didn’t even get a look. That’s where a lot of intimidation starts,” says sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. at UConn and spent two decades working with athletic teams at the University of Virginia, where he initiated the university’s doctoral program in sports psychology. “They may play in a gym with 800 people watching, and then they come in to face thousands.”

Rotella, who has known Auriemma since his days as an assistant for the women’s basketball team at Virginia, sees common attributes in how successful coaches work with their student-athletes.

“The challenge is getting student-athletes to be ready to play hard every night on both ends of the court,” he says. “On the one hand, coaches want to be warm and fuzzy, which everyone wants to do. But you also have to be willing to push them and be demanding when that’s needed. It’s getting kids to buy into other roles that makes winning more important.”

An element of the unknown

As Auriemma noted before the 2010-2011 season began, especially with a team that now relies on so many first-year players – including guard Bria Hartley, forward Samarie Walker, and center Stefanie Dolson – the Huskies’ winning streak likely will end at some point this season.

<p>Freshman center Stefanie Dolson. Photo by Steve Slade</p>
Freshman center Stefanie Dolson.

“You don’t know what the freshmen are going to do after exams. That’s the great unknown,” says Auriemma. “I know what Maya [Moore] is going to do next Sunday. I have a pretty good idea of what Tiffany [Hayes] is going to do. Kelly [Farris] might make a shot. It’s been a while and she’s due. But it’s a toss-up; like, what’s everybody else going to do? That’s why I’m kind of resigned to whatever happens is going to happen, because there are too many people doing things for the first time. You don’t know how they’re going to react.”

Whether the UConn winning streak ends Tuesday in Hartford or on Dec. 30 when the Huskies play at No. 3 Stanford, or some other time this season or next, Assaiante, the Trinity squash coach, says the Huskies will move on – just as his team will, whenever its winning streak ends.

“I know when it happens, we’ll deal with it,” he says. “Of course we’re going to lose, but we’re going to make it really hard for the other guy to get over us. We share the moment in every contest. We’re one big family. We share the wins, we’ll share the loss. … You take the information from that experience and you move forward.

“The boys [on the squash team] have tremendous respect for what’s going on at UConn. This is good for sports at UConn and for girls and women in our society. Geno and UConn deserve a tremendous vote of thanks for what they’re doing for the sport. Hats off to them.”

Rotella, the sports psychologist, says he hears echoes of Wooden in Auriemma’s psychological approach to coaching.

“John Wooden never did any scouting of the opponent,” he says. “When he put his offense and defense together, he assumed it would work against the opponent. You learn to measure winning in a different way. We want to play our game, our way. What you do is compete and act like a winner. When you do that, nothing upsets you. Basically what [Geno] has instilled in those kids is a belief in themselves. We call it a ‘will to win.’”