Streaking Huskies show more of the same

Friday, March 7, 2003

The problem with a perfect season is that one loss at the wrong time would make it seem like a flop.

It could happen to the Connecticut Huskies some night when their stars are unaligned and the moon is in the wrong house and someone steals all of Diana Taurasi's sneakers.

Yet national title or not, this would still be a season of astonishing achievement for these young players and their charismatic coach, Geno Auriemma.

Rebecca Lobo is perhaps the last person who should have been surprised by top-ranked Connecticut's perfection. Still, even she didn't see it coming.

Not a 29-0 regular season. Not a record 68-game winning streak going into the Big East tournament.

Not all the blowouts and the poise under pressure shown by a team without a senior on the roster.

"It's been another year of the same old, same old," Lobo said Wednesday, darting through the Hartford, Conn., airport between a flight and a winter league game for the Springfield Spirit. She keeps up with her alma mater through highlight clips and e-mails with Auriemma.

It's been the same old undefeated season for Connecticut, so far, that Lobo's 1994-95 Huskies and last year's Sue Bird-led version posted in two of UConn's three national title runs.

Lobo, like everyone else, saw the talent on this year's team, starring the junior All-American Taurasi, but figured it would take longer for the four freshmen and four sophomores to adapt to Auriemma's clockwork system and critical ways.

"Usually it takes a year or two to get adjusted to him," Lobo said. "But these young guys have done it quickly, and they've done it without senior leadership to follow. You have to give a lot of credit to the coaches, but also to these young kids."

Lobo knows firsthand how tough Auriemma can be.

"I remember being called the worst post player in America for my first two years," Lobo said. "Then we signed Kara (Wolters) and that was the best thing that could have happened to me. She became the worst post player in America."

Lobo and Wolters were the best in their day, taking player of the year honors in '95 and '97, and they thrived under Auriemma's good cop/bad cop coaching style.

"He's the best coach in the game," Lobo said. "He keeps basketball fun. He might be yelling at you and getting on you like crazy in practice, and there are times when you hate him. But he'll make wisecracks under his breath and he'll crack you up.

"He always keeps track of the fact that it's a fun game and you should enjoy yourself."

It's easier to keep it fun when a team is winning every game, some by 50 or 60 points. Auriemma joked the other day that he's tried to trip this team up, "playing the wrong lineups, calling the wrong stuff" to get them to lose, "but the players aren't cooperating."

He, too, thought they were too young to handle the pressure of being No. 1 and undefeated and the team everyone wants most to beat. He challenged them every day, he said, "to prove to me that they were as good as they thought they were."

And so they did.

This is a team that is built more on attitude than athletic prowess, more on discipline and determination than sheer speed or power. They pass around the ball and share the points and the credit. If Taurasi is the best player in the country, the rest of the Huskies complement her with their competitiveness and unselfishness.

"They've completely bought into the way he teaches basketball, and that is that the team comes first and that there is a certain way to play," Lobo said. "In his eyes, it's the right way to play. They don't veer out of that much."

In that way, the Huskies are reminiscent of the team they are still chasing -- John Wooden's UCLA Bruins, who set the Division I men's record of 88 straight wins from 1971-74. The 92-year-old Wooden acknowledged as much when Connecticut set the women's record with its 55th straight win in January.

"It's a tremendous feat in any era," Wooden said. "I think they play the pure game, more so than the men. The best college basketball in my opinion is played by the better women's teams. UConn and Tennessee are two that stand out year after year."

In his pursuit of "the pure game," Auriemma put less emphasis on the streak than on the style of play. Winning margins mattered far less to him than playing the right way. He kept reminding his younger players that the streak was Taurasi's and the All-Americans who graduated last year, that a claim on it would have to be earned over the breadth of the season.

When the Huskies ended their regular season with a 78-58 victory over West Virginia on Tuesday night, they made believers out of Auriemma, Lobo and everyone else.

"They were able to answer a lot of questions that people posed to them early on, including me," Auriemma said. "To win them all, I think, it's been pretty remarkable for this group."

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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