In the court of public opinion, the jury remains out on Geno Auriemma and the UConn women. But on the basketball court, the facts have become incontrovertible.
At shortly before 9 p.m., Tuesday night, the UConn women’s basketball team stepped off the floor at the XL Center and into immortality. With a 93-62 victory over No. 15 Florida State, UConn captured its 89th consecutive victory, surpassing the legendary streak of John Wooden’s UCLA men from 1971-74.
Like it or not, it is now a women’s team, not the guys, that own the longest winning streak in Division I basketball history.
They’re here, they’re without peer. Get used to it.
“They’re relentless,” Auriemma said, after taking a congratulatory phone call from President Obama during his postgame press conference. “They don’t settle for … whatever. I’m thrilled to death that I have that culture at Connecticut. ”
Maya Moore, the greatest scorer in UConn history and — sorry, Diana — its greatest player, led the Huskies with a career-high 41 points, picking the most-opportune time for her greatest performance.
“It takes a group of people who are highly invested and unselfish,” Moore said. “Who do more than just what’s required. We’re a group of people who are constantly around each other and look after each other and care about each other, off the court, as well. This is a family, and that’s how we treat it. We hold each other accountable. We argue, like sisters do, and we go to war together, like sisters do. It’s an honor for us.”
A sellout crowd exhorted the Huskies to their record-breaking victory, but the most-interested observer Tuesday night had to be Greg Wooden, the 47-year-old grandson of the late Wizard of Westwood.
John Wooden died this past June at 99, with UConn’s streak paused at 78. Greg Wooden, who was attending his first-ever women’s game as a guest of UConn, said his grandfather would have approved of this hotly-debated changing of the guard.
“My grandfather would have been absolutely thrilled to see his streak broken by a women’s basketball team,” Greg Wooden said. “I felt it was important that someone from the family show support. I know there’s been some articles [critical of the comparison]. I know my grandfather would have loved to have been here to see this.
“He thought for the past 10 years, the best basketball was played at the collegiate level, and it wasn’t by the men. He felt they were playing basketball closest to his style, especially the Connecticut women.”
That would be music to Auriemma’s ears. The UConn coach, as only he can, ruffled plenty of feathers Sunday afternoon in New York, after the Huskies tied UCLA’s record with win No. 88. Auriemma chastised the national media for suddenly glomming on — and in many cases frowning upon — UConn’s pursuit of the UCLA mark.
After Tuesday’s game — and after taking a beating in the national media for his comments — Auriemma sought to clarify his position.
“I think if you read the whole thing, it was pretty self-explanatory, in one sense,” Auriemma said. “[The streak] can signify whatever you want it to signify. People that love women’s basketball are thrilled to death about it. They couldn’t be happier. Sports fans that appreciate something really unique are thrilled.
“Those people that love men’s basketball and don’t give two rips about women’s basketball, we’re not going to change their minds, and I don’t care. And then there’s a bunch of people that are being forced to cover it now, and the reason is because it’s a team that’s breaking a men’s record. When we won 70 and 71 and 72, there wasn’t all this, because it was just a bunch of girls beating a bunch of girls.”
Indeed, as the UConn women’s beat writer for the Hartford Courant from 2001-06, I can bear witness to the fact that the Huskies’ record-breaking 55th consecutive victory in 2003 was greeted by a nation of crickets.
Even in March, when UConn re-set its record by surpassing the 70-game streak from 2001-03, the focus of the national media was not on UConn’s skill, but a buzz-kill: That UConn was so good, they were bad for the women’s game.
“And I was fine with that,” Auriemma said. “I wasn’t criticizing anybody. I wasn’t demanding more recognition and coverage. All I said was, I was amused that it takes a men’s record to get this kind of attention. We made you pay attention. For this little period of time, you paid attention. And it’s not my fault ESPN decided to do 10 hours [of pregame coverage Tuesday]. It felt like the Kennedy assassination.”
But to dismiss or distract from the Huskies’ accomplishment on the basis of a gender gap is to miss the point of a remarkable achievement.
Like that 70s show in Westwood, the Huskies have taken on all comers — 29 of the victories have come against Top 25 opponents — and they have brought the same intensity, skill and work ethic to each game, in a way Wooden would surely have applauded. Only twice in the 89 games has an opponent stayed within 10 points of the Huskies.
“I’m not here to tell you to make judgments on who is better and who’s not,” Auriemma said. “I’m talking about the actual journey that was taken and how it was done and what these kids did. If you say anything less than that, you’re telling Maya Moore and Tiffany Hayes that all these 89 wins are insignificant. I think anybody out there that’s done significant things, they appreciate it. That’s all I ever wanted: To be appreciated for what they did, not compared to how Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes did it. Just admire what they did and how hard it was to do.”
Jeff Goldberg covered the University of Connecticut women’s team for the Courant from 2001-2006. His new book, “Bird at the Buzzer,” will be released on March 1, 2011, and is available for pre-order here.