Ultimately, the only winning streak that really matters to the UConn women is six games.
Not that 90 isn’t pretty darn special. Love it or loathe it, the Huskies’ record winning streak, bookended by losses to Stanford in 2008 and last Thursday, will stand – perhaps forever — as a testament to consistency and excellence in a sports landscape where parity so often rules the playing field.
In the end, however, the measuring stick by which these Huskies in general – and Maya Moore in particular – will be judged is what happens in March and April, not December.
In that respect, the end of the winning streak will likely help the Huskies reach their real goals more than a winning streak of 100 or 120 ever could have.
The great Vince Lombardi often said the greatest motivator is fear. Losing runs a close second.
Even as UConn was tying the UCLA men’s mark of 88 two weeks ago – and lost in the hue and cry of Geno Auriemma’s double-barreled dissertation on gender bias – Moore acknowledged that all the winning was robbing her and her teammates of precious emotional and psychological fuel needed on the arduous road to the Final Four.
Before last Thursday, only two players on the UConn roster, seniors Moore and Lorin Dixon, had ever experienced a loss, and their grand total as freshmen in 2007-08 was two. Tiffany Hayes, Kelly Faris, Bria Hartley and the rest had only known winning.
“The best lessons in life come from when you mess up, when you fail,” Moore told the media after No. 88 in New York. “I tell people, I still remember very vividly the couple of losses I do have. I think when you lose, it’s easy motivation. So I think what we’re doing is harder, because you have to build that motivation from somewhere else, rather than, ‘We just lost.’ I think it’s hard to get motivated when you don’t have those losses on your record.”
Auriemma sat next to Moore as she delivered her eloquent and brutally honest assessment. He nodded in full agreement.
“You learn a lot from losing,” Auriemma said. “I agree wholeheartedly. I agree with what Maya said about the motivator. If you lose, you’re determined not to let that happen again. But if you win, what motivates you? That’s something that comes from deep inside you, what you stand for.”
Auriemma has been down this very road before, in 2003. In certain respects, the 2002-03 Huskies and the current edition have much in common. Back then, it was Diana Taurasi who went from teaming with the T.A.S.S.K. Force to go 39-0 in 2002 to being tasked with leading a group of freshmen and untested returnees back to the promised land.
And riding Taurasi’s sheer will, the Huskies kept right on winning, much to the shock of the basketball world. First fell the existing record of 54 straight victories before the streak peaked at 70 in the Big East tournament semifinals down at Rutgers.
And there it ended, in ugly fashion against Villanova in the Big East final, during and after the game. That was the night Auriemma lashed out not at the media in general, but one UConn student reporter in particular. But while Auriemma took the heat in public for his performance, the team resolved in private, during its 11-day break before the NCAA Tournament, never to feel the sting of losing again.
“Every team that I’ve ever had that’s won a championship has had to suffer something along the way,” Auriemma said after the 2003 season. “Either the year before with the 1995 team [a loss in the regional final], the year before with the 2000 team [a loss in the Sweet 16], the St. Louis game [in the 2001 Final Four] for the 2002 team.
“Every team has had to suffer and have that feeling in the pit of their stomach, like, `I never want that to happen again.’ I looked around at our guys and said, `What have these guys ever suffered?’”
Their minds re-focused, and Taurasi’s competitive spirit burning like never before with a 26-point scoring average, the Huskies won their next six games, the last against Tennessee at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to capture the second of three straight national championships.
Now, it is Moore’s turn to channel a bitter defeat and use that memory to match Taurasi’s mark of three straight titles. For the first time in almost three years, that motivating memory is fresh.
“You know, when we practice, Coach puts us in those tough situations all the time, like on a defensive drill, he’ll put almost double the guys out there we have to play against and we lose sometimes,” Moore said in New York. “That’s when you have to take those failures, at practice, and come back. It’s not like we never experience that feeling of failing. You have to overcome it … and that’s what you see on the court.”
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.
Without Peer | Wizard of Westwood Would Have Been Thrilled for UConn Women. With Steve McLaughlin photos.