Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 15, 2017

Auriemma’s Huskies Top Themselves

Sports fans got to see a record set this weekend. As improbable as the milestone seemed at the start of the season, by the time it occurred the accomplishment had come to be seen by most as inevitable. No, the reference here is not to the New England Patriots overcoming the four game suspension of quarterback Tom Brady to open the NFL regular season to become, with Saturday night’s 34-16 trouncing of the Houston Texans, the first team in the Super Bowl era to advance to six consecutive conference championship games. Nor is it to Dion Lewis, the lightly used Patriot running back who failed to tally a single score in the regular season but became the first player in NFL postseason history to score touchdowns by running, receiving and returning a kickoff in one game.

While the focus of most sports fans this weekend bounced from Atlanta to Foxborough, Massachusetts, then from Arlington, Texas to Kansas City, the sites of the four NFL divisional round playoff games, the truly remarkable record was the one set at Moody Coliseum on the suburban Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University on Saturday. That was where the members of the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team raced off to a 21-0 lead over the SMU Mustangs on their way to an eventual 88-48 victory. The win improved number one UConn’s record to 16-0 this season. Add to that the 75 consecutive victories that were capped by the Huskies’ victory over Syracuse in last season’s national title game, and coach Geno Auriemma’s team has now won 91 games in a row, topping the record of 90 straight wins by an earlier group of UConn players from 2008 through 2010. That record in turn eclipsed the 88 consecutive wins achieved by John Wooden’s UCLA men back in 1974.

Many fans know little about women’s college basketball beyond the fact the Auriemma and Connecticut have long been dominant. With that as the sum of their knowledge those casual observers will not appreciate the enormity of what UConn has now accomplished twice and what UCLA did more than four decades ago. In the tournament era for NCAA Division I schools, eight men’s and twelve women’s teams have compiled perfect seasons, including postseason play. But among the men only UCLA in 1971-72 and 1972-73 managed back-to-back perfect seasons. Similarly among women’s teams, only the Huskies in 2008-09 and 2009-10 were perfect in consecutive years. Even dominant teams can have an off night, or lose a key player to injury. More important, at the college level each team’s roster is constantly changing.

After UConn won the national championship last April it was widely assumed that turnover factor would scuttle any chance of breaking the consecutive win record this season. In fact, there was even some talk that this could be the year for other schools to supplant the Huskies at the top of the women’s game. That’s because the victory over Syracuse at last season’s Women’s Final Four marked the end of the Breanna Stewart era. For all of the many fine players that Auriemma has coached in thirty-plus years at Connecticut, none can rival Stewart. She was the first person win four consecutive awards as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and the first female to capture three straight AP Player of the Year Awards. During her four years UConn went a combined 151-5, with four of the losses coming when Stewart was a freshman. The remaining defeat was in the second game of the 2014-15 season. It stopped a run of 47 straight wins and presaged the current streak.

Naturally Stewart was the number one pick in last year’s WNBA Draft, and she went on to be named the league’s Rookie of the Year. But right behind her as the second and third players taken in that draft were UConn teammates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. Surely the loss of three players of that caliber had to derail Auriemma’s chances of fielding another overwhelmingly dominant squad. That looked to be the case early, when UConn’s roster included not a single preseason All-American, featured a rotation at the critical point guard position, and was smaller overall than previous editions of the Huskies. Connecticut was 3rd in the preseason AP poll, behind Notre Dame and Baylor.

The doubters nearly proved prescient in this season’s very first game. On the road against 12th ranked Florida State, the Huskies let an eight point fourth quarter lead dwindle to one with under a minute to play. The lead was two when Florida State came down the floor on its final possession, and a three-point shot was in the air as the horn sounded. But Imani Wright’s long range effort never threatened the basket, and UConn escaped with a 78-76 win.

Auriemma has used the skeptics as a motivational tool, and his players readily admit to taking the court with a chip on their shoulders and a determination to prove their collective worth. Since the opening thriller the Huskies have won all but one game by double digits, with their average margin a tiny fraction under thirty points. They defeated Notre Dame on the road and Baylor at home by identical scores of 72-61. UConn’s 16-0 record to date also includes five other wins over ranked teams.

The streak will end at some point of course, as all streaks do. The Huskies are into their conference schedule now. UConn has never lost a conference game since joining the American Athletic Conference prior to the 2013-14 season. If that record holds, the Huskies next test could be in mid-February, when they host South Carolina, currently ranked 5th in the country. If the streak is still alive Auriemma’s team will be shooting for its 100th consecutive win. Maybe it will end that night, or maybe it will end in some huge upset against a conference foe next week. But as he is proving yet again with a highly motivated group of highly underrated players, betting against Geno Auriemma is never a good idea.

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