One more victory. That’s all that stands between the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team tonight and its 78th straight win, back-to-back national championships, and a secure place as the greatest women’s squad in NCAA basketball history – and arguably the best ever of either gender.
And yes, that includes the undefeated UCLA men’s teams led by Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As great as they were, they never dominated the way the UConn women have this year.
UConn’s march to tonight’s championship game in San Antonio against Stanford has been one relentless “shock and awe” campaign. In fact, the Huskies have been so untouchable that commentators have taken to asking two questions:
1. Is their dominance bad for women’s basketball?
2. Does this mean that the women’s game is not progressing the way it should, and that UConn has somehow leapfrogged far ahead of the field?
How have they done it?
Certainly the Huskies,with their relentless defense, balanced scoring, and well-oiled team play, have revolved in a separate orbit this season. Their average margin of victory has been nearly 36 points per game.
During 1,520 minutes of play they have only trailed during 38 minutes. Maybe most impressive of all, in the tournament, when the competition presumably is tougher, UConn has beaten its opponents by 56, 54, 38, 40, and 20 points.
The most recent game, against Baylor University’s Lady Bears’ and their 6 ft., 8 in. freshman center, Brittney Griner, was the closest thing to a gut check since beating Stanford by 12 points (UConn’s slimmest margin of victory) on Dec. 23. That Stanford game was in Hartford, Conn., where UConn plays selected home games when not averaging 10,260 spectators per game in Gampel Pavilion, its on-campus arena in Storrs, Conn.
The return date with Stanford in tonight’s final in San Antonio’s Alamodome is a fitting final exam for the Huskies. Stanford, after all, has lost only one game itself during a 36-1 campaign. They haven’t looked as invincible as UConn, but the Cardinal feature a trio of strong, wily, and tall frontcourt players hungry to bring Stanford its first NCAA title since 1992.
It was Stanford, by the way, which handed Connecticut its last loss, in the national semifinals two years ago. And now the Cardinal squad, led by supersoph Nigerian-American Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who scored 38 points in a 73-66 semifinal win over Oklahoma, is all that stands between UConn and a record second straight perfect season.
Is it good for the sport?
Within the coaching profession at least, the general consensus is that UConn’s current dominance has been good for the game by creating a higher standard and forcing other teams to rise to it.
Geno Auriemma, UConn’s head coach and the president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, recognizes that he’s put a huge bull’s-eye on the Huskies’ back by honing their killer instinct and pushing them toward perfection.
“We’re the team that everybody loves to hate. We’re the team everybody loves to beat,” he has said. “We’re the Yankees, the Celtics, the Montreal Canadiens, the Russian hockey team in 1980.”
The mystery, if you care to call it that, is how any team at this point in the development of women’s basketball has essentially managed to lap the field. Granted, Tennessee and Connecticut have emerged as perennial powers, accounting for 11 of the last 15 national championships, but other schools have occasionally broken through. To wit: Purdue, Notre Dame, Baylor, and Maryland.
College sports are cyclical, though, and Auriemma is the first to acknowledge that as high as UConn’s program is flying now, a dip in the road is bound to occur – and possibly as early next season, when finding a worthy replacement for Charles, who averages 18.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, promises to be a very tall order.
As if to throw down the gauntlet to UConn’s rivals, Auriemma has said that if no one beats the Huskies by the end of next December, he will quit.
The coach may already be attempting to light a fire under next season’s squad. If it can win tonight, and then get off to a fast start next season, the Huskies could surpass the gold standard in basketball winning streaks: the 88 consecutive victories of UCLA’s men’s team from 1971 to 1974.