Perfection a way of life for UConn women - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Perfection a way of life for UConn women

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Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 4:43 pm | Updated: 2:13 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

TRENTON, N.J. — Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma is a perfectionist and expects the same from his team.

Early in the season, with the Huskies comfortably ahead in the first half, he lamented that star Maya Moore was playing horribly. All she did was nearly reach double figures in points and rebounds by halftime.

Such is life at UConn, where the men's basketball team is headed for another Final Four and the women may be even better.

"For better or worse I've created an environment where winning the national championship is expected every year," Auriemma said. "In 95 percent of the country an undefeated regular season would be celebrated with a parade. Here, if we don't win a national title, it's a bad year."

While Connecticut's powerhouse men's team is going for its third national championship, it's the women who have created a basketball dynasty. The Huskies are just three victories away from a sixth title and a third unbeaten season. Only two other women's teams have ever had even one unbeaten season, and no men's team has achieved one for 33 years.

All that success has turned the players into campus celebrities.

"It's like being a rock star," said Swin Cash, who played at UConn from 1998-2002. "We have media follow us around more than a WNBA team. It's never about the name on the back of the jersey. There's one that matters, and that's what's on the front of the chest."

Without a professional team to support, the state of Connecticut has embraced the Huskies. It's a loyal, loud fan base that has consistently put Gampel Pavilion in the top three of the attendance charts for the last 14 years.

The Huskies have won 91 of their last 93 games there.

Hanging high above the court are banners representing the women's five titles. There's one for Auriemma's induction into the national basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. The former great players are also celebrated in the Huskies of Honor. Earlier this season, senior guard Renee Montgomery became the first active player to go on the wall, joining stars such as Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

Sophomore sensation Moore might soon join that list.

She's already become the fastest UConn player to reach 1,000 points and stands only seven away this season from passing Wolters' single-season school scoring record of 694 points.

"Those were my role models growing up," Moore said. "To even be considered in the same breath with them would be incredible."

Along with the success, the 55-year-old Auriemma has rubbed some people the wrong way. He's seen as brash and sometimes arrogant, setting up a culture where winning titles is the only acceptable outcome.

"If we do win it's we did what we were supposed to do. If we don't win then it's wow you guys didn't do what you were supposed to do," Auriemma said. "It's not the easiest thing to walk around with, but that's the type of guy I am and the type of players I recruit."

It's impossible to argue with Auriemma's success. He built the Connecticut women's basketball team from scratch, turning it into one of the two pre-eminent teams in the sport, winning five national championships in the last 14 seasons. Only Tennessee has more titles with eight.

At his own school, there has been some jealousy between Auriemma and men's coach Jim Calhoun, although those relations thawed a bit when both teams won national championships in 2004.

They'll try to do that again this year, though only the women have a shot at perfection.

While nothing new for the Huskies, who were perfect in 1994-95 and 2001-02, it's a rarity in sports. Only Tennessee, Texas and UConn have achieved it in women's basketball.

"I'm sure the expectation is even greater now that there are more banners hanging in the rafters," former UConn star Bird told The Associated Press via email from Russia, where she's been following the Huskies. "It's not necessarily fair but it also makes it that much better when you do win."

This team isn't just beating opponents this season, they are downright embarrassing them. The Huskies haven't had a team come within 10 points all season and have blown out ranked opponents by an average of 30 points.

"They find your weakness and expose it right away," said Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, whose team lost by 28 early in the season to the Huskies. "They have a way of making teams look silly."

UConn went down to North Carolina when the Tar Heels were the No. 2 team in the country and dismantled them, easily winning by 30.

In the regional semifinals against California, UConn found itself facing an eight-point deficit late in the first half — the biggest its seen all season. Then the Huskies turned up the defense a notch and rattled off a 40-12 run over the next 20 minutes to put the game away.

What really separates UConn from most other programs is that they never seem to have a slip-up even when they aren't playing in a nationally televised game. They are 250-3 over the last decade when playing a non-ranked opponent and haven't lost consecutive games since 1993.

That attitude goes back to the perfectionism of the coach.

"It started the first day of practice," said assistant coach Shea Ralph, who played for Auriemma from 1996-2001. "There is never a day he comes in and it's kind of lazy, 'Ha, ha. We'll have fun today and play shooting games.' We don't do that."

Auriemma knows his perfectionist ways don't work for everyone. He's suffered through the longest drought of his coaching career without a national championship — the last was in 2004.

"There's a point of diminishing returns though if you're not careful," he said. "I've tried hard not to step over that line of never being satisfied. I always check with my players first to see what their tolerance level is. The pursuit of getting it exactly right drives some of our players. I know its what drives me. It's not for everyone.

"Those players and teams that strive to get it exactly right as opposed to just not getting it wrong are the ones playing for championships."

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