End of UConn's Streak Restores Competition to Women's Basketball
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- There were two minutes and change left in the life of a 90-game winning streak, and the best female player on these shores ducked her head, a move equivalent to waving a white flag. Maya Moore had been erratic all night, an obvious sign something was definitely amiss, but when she missed another jumper from the top of the key and let Chiney Ogwumike sneak by to score an easy, uncontested basket, it was a seismic, karmic shift.
Stanford Cardinal 71, University of Connecticut Huskies 59, and what occurred here Thursday night just might be the best thing to happen to women's basketball since it was decided girls no longer had to play in skirts.
This is not a knock on top-ranked UConn, the marvelous team that rolled off 90 straight across 998 days and nights. That's a phenomenal, bow-down-and-praise-them accomplishment, one that may never be matched. But if it had continued, if the Huskies kept on rolling over teams by 20, 30 points, ponytails barely dripping, there are plenty of lovers and detractors of the sport who wouldn't bother tuning in again until March.
Stanford made the season interesting again. In front of a frothing crowd stuffed as tight as sardines inside Maples Pavilion, the Cardinal led wire to wire, leaning heavily on its size, defensive discipline and a brilliant game plan by a coach who, if she wanted, could convince her team it could fly. Some saw it as taking down the evil empire; more than once I overheard giddy fans saying it was akin to the San Francisco Giants smacking around the New York Yankees. There definitely was this West Coast dominating the East Coast vibe, but it was so much more.
It was Stanford remaining greedily breathtaking all the way to the end, finally, then pogoing across the floor after winning its 52nd straight game at home -- speaking of glorious streaks -- and shouting as if they had just won the national championship. It was UConn, sharp shooters all season but hitting just 32.8 percent on this night, playing uncharacteristically sloppy, ugly ball. It was Moore, done in by a revolving whirl of pesky hands in her face and imposing bodies against her back; it was Jeanette Pohlen (photo above), Stanford's 6-foot, do-everything point guard killing UConn softly from the outside and cracking the game wide open with sheer grit and physical toughness.
It was UConn's mystique, swatted away by a team and a crowd clearly tired of being considered not quite good enough.
It burst with symmetry, this 40-minute chunk of ninth-ranked Stanford's dominance, and not just because the Cardinal were the last team to beat Connecticut, way back on April 6, 2008 in the NCAA semifinal game. Twice last season Stanford held and then blew a halftime lead over UConn, including in the national championship game, a miserable shooting affair where both teams could barely hit the backboard.
And how bizarrely delicious to discover this tidbit: Notre Dame was the last team to beat the UCLA men's team before John Wooden's Bruins peeled off 88 consecutive wins, a college record that held for decades until Geno Auriemma's Huskies won their 89th last week. A national debate ensued over the feat's validity -- when did we start comparing men and women's sports so intensely? -- while reasonable folk decided it's absolutely acceptable to admire both marks, made in different eras, by different genders, under vastly different circumstances. It was Notre Dame that ended the Bruins' undefeated run on Jan. 19, 1974, just as Stanford bookended UConn's mark of perfection. The universe found a sneaky way to connect the two distinct streaks.
Auriemma (right), bombastic and feisty throughout Connecticut's blowouts and romps, sighed deeply as he slid into a chair in the interview room Thursday evening, ready to talk about a subject he's rarely had to visit in his fine career. His shoulders appeared to visibly unknot, his teeth came unclenched. His Huskies had been outplayed in every facet, and the come-from-behind bursts that twice before upended Stanford never materialized. In some ways, Auriemma looked relieved, having lost to a team that can be a bit psychotic, but that on this night was sheer excellence.
"This losing stuff is getting old, man. I hate it. I just wish we could catch a break every once in a while so these kids can have some success," he said, smiling wide. "At some point, reality has to set in, and today reality set in. I'm OK with it. I'm not destroyed by it. Winning that many games in a row, it's just unheard of.
"We just didn't play like ourselves. Give credit to Stanford. I think they played an unbelievably good game."
He spoke of the journey's wonders, and how this loss made him appreciate the streak even more, because it illustrated how many things could have gone wrong on any given night. Moore, the nation's top player, sat near her coach's unknotted shoulder, but it was impossible to read her emotions. Maybe because she's never experienced a night like this, a night when she was handcuffed by an exceptional Stanford defense, and had scant help from teammates.
Moore, the two-time national player of the year who had befuddled Stanford late twice last season, didn't have a single point Thursday until barely three minutes remained in the first half. She drilled a catch-and-shoot, quickly and perfectly, to cut Stanford's lead to 34-25, but mostly she spent the evening getting bullied around by the Ogwumike sisters, 6-foot-2 Nnemkadi and 6-3 Chiney. Nnemkadi had 12 points and six rebounds while Kayla Pedersen's 11 rebounds gave Stanford a 43-36 advantage on the boards.
"I thought we showed moments of fight where we came together and were playing together at times. Then we would do something to hurt ourselves. Momentum is so priceless and valuable for the away team and we just gave it away too many times," said Moore, her 14 points on 5 for 15 shooting a long drop from her average of 24.8 ppg.
Pohlen, meanwhile, was a marvel – or, as her teammates kept calling her, the glue that kept Stanford from unraveling. She scored 31 points, many off what she described as "awesome screens," but it was her emotional cinder block that enabled the Cardinal to stave off UConn's streaky spurts. There would be no second-half collapses this time on Pohlen's watch, no chance for UConn to find the sort of up-tempo pace that dogged lesser opponents.
"I just had that mentality. I'm not giving up until that buzzer goes off," said Pohlen, after hitting five 3-pointers. "I think our team was really looking for me to get my shot. We got the win, and our team played awesome."
Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford coach who joined the elite 800-win club last week, watched films of every UConn game this season, from start to finish, every shot and every steal and every basket and every victory celebration. There was an awful lot of talent on those films. Last season's loss to UConn in the championship game -- a game Stanford nearly won until Maya Moore (who else?) led a comeback -- has eaten at VanDerveer, but she didn't know how much until the clock expired Thursday night.
"It's not a national championship but it's a very big game for us and we're very excited," she said, clearly trying not to make this victory any bigger than it already was. Stanford has made the last three Final Fours, but hasn't won the title since 1992, as VanDerveer kept reminding her team. And the Huskies aren't going anywhere.
"I think that's an incredible, incredible accomplishment," VanDerveer said of UConn's string of 90 wins. "Since we last played them and beat them, we've lost eight games -- and two of them were to them. I'm really proud of our team for really stepping up and not being intimidated by the streak. Tonight was our night."
Connecticut's place in history is secure, because what the Huskies did across 998 days and nights is remarkable, no matter how you shake or slice it. The sport is better for it but it's kind of nice to return to normalcy, to knowing the season has plenty of fight left.