It's big-time college basketball. The stands are packed, sold out for the umpteenth time. A pair of TV commentators stand courtside, jovially previewing the game. Cheerleaders backflip, make pyramids, and toss tied-up T-shirts into the begging crowd. Every timeout is a chance to pull fans young and old out of the stands for hokey contests as the pep band brays.
For the players wearing pigtails on the court, this is just another ordinary midseason, midweek University of Connecticut women's basketball game. But when "our girls" take the floor, as fans refer to the players, the whole Nutmeg State gets all spiced up.
After setting an all-time record of 58 consecutive victories this season, UConn's Lady Huskies have confirmed their position as the New York Yankees of women's basketball. The women's equivalent of UCLA under legendary John Wooden. The gold standard.
And with each passing game, they're winning fans, an anomaly in a sport that has always been marginalized by the popularity of the men's game. Even at a professional level, the popularity of the women's game has weakened. But not here. In fact, UConn has made women's basketball so popular here that the WNBA just announced it will move a team to Connecticut next season, led by Nykesha Sales, an ex-UConn star.
But, come Saturday, UConn's dream season could receive a startling jolt. In women's basketball's key game of the year, and on national television, the No. 2-ranked Huskies will take on undefeated and No. 1-ranked Duke in Durham, N.C.
As with most women's basketball teams, Duke isn't used to sell-out crowds, a certainty for UConn at home games.
"Wherever we go, people sell the place out," says Geno Auriemma, who has a 483-98 record in 18 seasons as the UConn coach. "I tell our kids, 'See? You guys take it for granted that it's like this every time.' One of the greatest thrills I have when we come to town is that the players on the other team get to experience something similar to what our kids get ... every single night."
The Huskies were supposed to be rebuilding this year after sending four senior starters from their 39-0 national championship team last year to the WNBA.
But led by junior Diana Taurasi, a candidate for national player of the year, and a host of talented freshman and former benchwarmers, the Huskies have relied on a suffocating defense to win close games, including an overtime victory over a highly regarded Tennessee team.
It may seem that, like the Yankee's pinstripes, UConn's blue-and-white seems to somehow magically make their players better. But those who've watched the program for a long time say it's a combination of Mr. Auiemma's ability to recruit blue-chip high school players and his insistance on selfless team play. He's been known to bench even his stars if they fail to give maximum effort in practice. And some say his practices are so tough that the games seem easy in comparison.
"There's a standard that's set there, and I think the players realize and begin to understand that standard from the moment they're recruited," says Bob Picozzi, a commentator for games broadcast on Connecticut Public Television.
This TV coverage, begun in 1995, has created fans across the state, many of whom can't even buy a ticket to the sold-out games. The team regularly plays off campus in an arena in Hartford, Conn., just to accommodate demand for seats.
"We do get some student support, but it's mostly families with younger children or senior citizens who root for the women's team," says Nancy Pfaff of Wallingford, Conn., who as "Husky Nan" administers an Internet chat board about the team that has 1,300 registered users. The players, she says, "can't go to the mall. They get mobbed for autographs. Everybody knows them. Even the [benchwarmers]. We know everything about them."
The UConn players "are kids that you'd like to have in your family," says Blake Skinner, a retired elementary schoolteacher who lives just across the border in Agawam, Mass. "They're kids that you can easily see coming into your home to babysit, be friends with your daughter, be a girlfriend of your son."
Mr. Skinner was dragged to a game a decade ago and has since become an avid fan. Though he knows the players can't jump as high or run as fast as the men, he says, "they have a skill level that's pleasing enough to entertain me, anyway. They play really hard. They're very committed, very enthusiastic."
But is such a dominant women's program good for women's basketball? By contrast, parity works for the NFL.
Nancy Lieberman, a Hall of Fame player and now a basketball commentator for ESPN, argues that UConn's success is great for the game.
"They've done something that's tremendously impressive," she says. "It wasn't bad for the New York Yankees or the Boston Celtics or the Montreal Canadians. It just made [their opponents] strive to play at a higher standard."
Consecutive winning streaks
The UConn women's basketball team's winning streak broke a record set by Louisiana Tech in 1982. Here are some other top-winning streaks for major college men's and women's sports.
University of Connecticut 58 current
UCLA 88 1971-74
Arizona 47 1996-97
Florida Atlantic 34 1999
Texas 34 1977
Oklahoma 47 1953-57
N. Carolina 92 1990-94
Appalachian State 35 1977-82
* (Includes postseason games)