John Smallwood: Philly women coaches laud UConn's achievement

Coach Geno Auriemma celebrates record-tying win with star Maya Moore (23) and others.
Coach Geno Auriemma celebrates record-tying win with star Maya Moore (23) and others.
Posted: December 21, 2010

IT WAS LIKELY just coincidence, but maybe it was fate that Temple played Villanova on Sunday in women's basketball - the same day the University of Connecticut's women matched the 88-game winning streak set by the UCLA men's teams from 1971 to '74.

Wildcats coach Harry Perretta is a longtime friend of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and probably has faced him more than any other coach. Owls coach Tonya Cardoza was an assistant coach on the UConn staff for 14 seasons before she accepted the Temple job in 2008.

In Cardoza's first season at Connecticut, the Huskies had their first undefeated season, going 35-0.

In her final game, UConn lost, 82-73, to Stanford in the 2008 national semifinals. The Huskies have not lost since.

In between, there was a 70-game winning streak by Connecticut that was stopped by Perretta and Villanova in 2003.

Tonight against 22nd-ranked Florida State, the Huskies will get a chance to set themselves apart from the UCLA men. Both Perretta and Cardoza will watch what they believe will be an inevitable conclusion.

"I want them to get the record," Cardoza said. "I hope they win every game unless they are playing us or Cincinnati [where former UConn player and assistant coach Jamelle Elliott is the coach]. They are going to lose eventually, but I want them to get that record. I know how much work they put into it."

And while neither denies that Auriemma's program is filled to the brim with some of the best players, the two Big 5 coaches say it would be far too simple to say that is the reason for UConn's invincibility.

"Everyone thinks [Auriemma] can just handpick his player, go into a home and get whoever he wants," Cardoza said. "It's not like that. There are a lot of top kids who have turned him down.

"But the thing is that once you step foot on that campus and you are committed to playing for him, he is going to get the most out of you."

Perretta calls that Auriemma's most special talent as a coach.

"He just instills in his players this mental toughness that will not allow them to play below their abilities," said Perretta, who beat Auriemma the first 10 times he faced him, but has gone 3-33 against the Huskies since. "You take [UConn's] talent level and now they don't play below their ability. It eventually becomes impossible for them to lose."

Even in an era when women's basketball has more talent than ever and the best players don't all end up at a handful of programs, neither Perretta nor Cardoza is surprised by the streak.

Cardoza, whose program took its place in the streak last March when UConn crushed Temple, 90-36, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, said it is just the way Auriemma runs his program.

She reflected back on the 70-game streak, saying, "We just had a bunch of individuals that, no matter what, they wanted to destroy you.

"We were out trying to do something special. It wasn't like we talked about a streak; it was just that we went out and prepared every day," Cardoza said.

"Geno doesn't let you look past anybody. It will take a team that is extremely talented and extremely disciplined to finally beat UConn."

Oh, yeah, it would help to have a big who can score and someone who can contain three-time consensus All-America Maya Moore.

That team might not exist.

The Huskies haven't built this streak playing against the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their victim list reads like a Who's Who of the top teams in women's basketball.

During the 2008-09 season, UConn beat No. 2 North Carolina and No. 4 Oklahoma by a combined 58 points.

During the 2009-10 season, the Huskies' victims included No. 2 Stanford by 12; No. 11 Florida State by 19; No. 7 North Carolina by 41; No. 3 Notre Dame by 24; No. 7 Duke by 33; No. 8 West Virginia by 33, No. 11 Georgetown by 22; and No. 12 Oklahoma by 16.

In all, they won 17 games against Top 25 teams. This season, they've already beaten No. 2 Baylor, 65-64, and just smashed No. 10 Ohio State by 31 to tie the UCLA streak.

Perretta said the end of the streak will be more about Connecticut coming back to the field than someone catching up to the Huskies.

He would know, since his Wildcats ended UConn's 70-game streak with a 52-48 upset victory in the 2003 Big East Tournament title game.

Perretta had a Top 25 team that was full of veteran leadership. UConn had the best player in the nation in Diana Taurasi, but had also lost key players from the 2002 undefeated NCAA championship team.

Despite losing by 20 earlier in the season, Perretta said he had the feeling that if things broke perfectly for them, the Wildcats could pull off the upset.

"It helped that we had played them once, because we had lost that fear factor," Perretta said. "For some reason, after that first game, I just believed that we could win.

"Afterwards, you find it really hard to believe it actually happened."

This UConn team has Moore, but also three new starters.

The path will get only tougher for the Huskies. No. 8 Stanford is a veteran team with a chip on its shoulder from having lost twice to UConn last season, including the national championship game. The Huskies travel to Stanford on Dec. 30. The Big East has five other ranked teams, and there are other ranked opponents on the Huskies' schedule in North Carolina, Duke and Oklahoma.

Then, of course, there is the NCAA Tournament.

"You never know how kids are going to react to things when this streak just keeps getting bigger and bigger," Perretta said. "But they are so good." *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

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