HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — No. 89 came and went as effortlessly as nearly all their previous games. This season. Last season. And the season before.
UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, never at a loss for words, was close Tuesday night.
“It’s pretty amazing. It really is,” he said.
No exaggeration there.
His No. 1-ranked Huskies topped the 88-game winning streak set by John Wooden’s UCLA men’s team from 1971-74, beating No. 22 Florida State 93-62. Playing with the relentlessness that has become its trademark — and would have made Wooden proud — UConn blew past the Seminoles as it has so many other teams in the last 2½ years.
“I don’t want my team to compare themselves to anyone,” Auriemma said. “I’m not John Wooden and this isn’t UCLA. This is Connecticut and that’s good enough.”
Maya Moore had a career-high 41 points and 10 rebounds and freshman Bria Hartley added 21 points for the Huskies, who have not lost since April 6, 2008, in the NCAA tournament semifinals. Only twice during the record run has a team come within single digits of UConn — Stanford in the NCAA championship game last season and Baylor in early November.
When the final buzzer sounded, UConn players sprinted across the floor to shake hands with the student section as fans held up “89” signs and “89” balloons bobbed in the stands behind center court. Two other fans raised a banner that read “The Sorcerer of Storrs” — a play on Wooden’s nickname, “The Wizard of Westwood.”
After a brief huddle in front of their bench, UConn players re-emerged wearing “89 and Counting” T-shirts. As fans roared, the players bounced around at center court before posing for photos.
It is one more chapter of history for UConn, and perhaps the grandest.
Asked what he would recall from the incredible run, Auriemma mentioned a pair of experienced stars on this team: “I’ll probably remember Maya Moore and Tiffany Hayes. And how incredibly difficult it is to play that many games in a row and win ’em all.”
Connecticut long ago established itself as the marquee program in the women’s game, the benchmark by which all others are measured. The Huskies already own seven national titles and four perfect seasons under Auriemma, and they’ve produced a galaxy of stars that includes Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Jennifer Rizzotti, Sue Bird and Tina Charles.
The streak, though, takes it to another level, certainly raising the profile of women’s basketball and maybe all of women’s athletics.
Two days after beating No. 11 Ohio State to tie UCLA, UConn toppled the mark in front of a sellout crowd of 16,294 at the XL Center that included Wooden’s grandson, Greg, attending his first women’s game.
“My grandfather would have been thrilled. He would have been absolutely thrilled to see his streak broken by a women’s basketball team,” the 47-year-old Wooden said. “He thought, especially in the last 10 years, that the best basketball was played at the collegiate level — and it wasn’t by the men.”
John Wooden was 99 when he died on June 4.
There was a festive atmosphere throughout the city, where building lights gleamed blue and white, and it was as electric as any Final Four inside the arena. Charles and UConn men’s star Kemba Walker sat behind the Huskies’ bench, and football coach Randy Edsall was there, too. Former NFL star Warrick Dunn, meanwhile, was cheering for his alma mater, Florida State.
With the game tied at 6, Moore and UConn (11-0) took command. The senior All-American had seven points during a 15-2 run to give Connecticut its first double-digit lead, and Moore’s fadeaway jumper from the baseline extended the advantage to 34-15. Florida State (9-3) made a quick run to cut the lead to 11, but the Huskies weren’t about to let anyone spoil this night.
UConn ripped off the next 16 points, capped by consecutive 3-pointers from Hartley and a pull-up by Moore. Auriemma gave Hartley a kiss at the next timeout, and the tough-to-please coach was still grinning at halftime.
“She doesn’t feel any of this,” Auriemma said as he left the court. “She’s kind of immune to all of this as a freshman. I love kids like that.”
With a minute left to play and victory assured, Moore stood up and whirled a towel around her head. The All-American tossed it in the air briefly before sitting down for the final seconds, beaming as she and her teammates on the bench yelled encouragement at the players on the floor.
“All you guys from Florida State, it wasn’t easy to be part of all of this,” Auriemma said. “I hope you don’t feel disrespected by all this. You played a heck of a game.”
During his postgame news conference, Auriemma took a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama.
“Mr. President I really appreciate that. It’s an incredible thing that these kids have done and we owe you a little bit of gratitude. That lesson you gave on the White House basketball court really paid off. I appreciate you doing that for them,” Auriemma said. “We have not lost since you have been inaugurated and how ’bout we keep that streak going for a couple of more years, huh?”
UConn’s rise to prominence began in 1995, when Lobo led the Huskies to their first national championship and unbeaten season. Since then, the best players in the country have made their way to the rural campus in Storrs, 30 miles outside of Hartford.
“This streak is result of the program Geno has been building at UConn for a long time. Great players want to play for him,” Taurasi said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “What UConn has done is important and significant on its own merit. All this talk about comparison to Wooden’s UCLA men is just silly. It’s not about women vs. men, it’s about basketball. Both teams beat their respective competition night in and night out.”
The excellence and confidence that defines great teams defines this one because Auriemma won’t have it any other way. Perfection is expected, not simply a goal, and Auriemma goes to extraordinary lengths to get it.
He goads his players with criticisms of their games — sarcastic remarks that may strike outsiders as harsh but somehow trigger just the right response with gusto. He makes them play games of seven-on-five in practice. He rounds up bigger, stronger male students around campus to serve as practice players. He runs endless drills to hone skills the players thought they had mastered in junior high.
It hardly seems to matter who is on the floor because UConn players don’t wear names on the back of their uniforms. The only one that counts is the one on the front.
When UConn — led by Taurasi — won 70 straight games from 2001-03, a record in the women’s game, it seemed unfathomable that it would be toppled, like UCLA’s 88. But what fans have learned over the years is that nothing this team does should be surprising.
“I didn’t think that it would be possible,” Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. “It’s still impossible to me that it’s happened. But I’ve watched Geno grow his program and the job that he’s done and I’m not surprised its Connecticut.”
The Huskies have beaten 16 top-10 teams during the latest streak — four more than UCLA did during its run — and five of those wins came against the No. 2 team. It’s been more than 17 years since UConn lost consecutive games.
The Huskies have won by any average of more than 33 points during the streak and rarely found themselves in trouble. They have trailed for 134 minutes, including only 13 in the second half. They’ve won back-to-back national championships, and are now one short of Tennessee’s record for overall titles by a women’s team.
“It’s really something special to watch,” Bird said by phone from her home in Seattle. “Both UCLA and UConn’s streaks have been something special. Neither team ever took a night off.”
Even before UConn tied UCLA’s record, the two programs were linked.
Auriemma acknowledges that his team runs the same offense that Wooden perfected 37 years earlier. But it’s not just the Xs and Os. The top block of Wooden’s pyramid of success reads: “Competitive Greatness: Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required every day.”
That’s been Auriemma’s mantra all along.
Greg Wooden, who lives in California, said he came East because, “I kind of thought that somebody should come here from the family and show support.”
He also was aware that “certain players have said they’re not really supportive of the streak.”
But he came knowing “my grandfather would have loved to have been here to see this.”
The day Notre Dame broke UCLA’s streak, John Wooden was asked how long it would be before somebody surpassed it.
“I have no idea how long it will be before somebody else wins that many. I know it takes at least three years,” he replied.
Try 36 years, 11 months, and 2 days.