Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guru Report: UConn's Date With The Record Book Arrives

(Guru’s note: Listen up. This is the Guru main advance. He also by the way has a sidebar Inquirer print preview at Philly.com to Frank Fitzpatrick’s piece.
If you have gotten here through the normal bookmarks and links you’ve been using, a second post is below this one with some former UConn individuals such as Tonya Cardoza, Jennifer Rizzotti and Wilnett Crockett offering thoughts.
If you got to this post directly on the new melgreenberg.com address, simply click on the headline or the “mel’s blog” button on the left side and then once you arrive back in blogspot.com you can either scroll past this story or click on the obvious headline on the left side.
The game doesn’t start until the 2 p.m. hour so you have plenty of time to read both pieces if it is still the A.M.)

By Mel Greenberg

When the top-ranked and two-time defending NCAA champion University of Connecticut women’s basketball team takes the floor at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon against No. 11 Ohio State in the nightcap of the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York that follows Rutgers-Texas A&M, the game in itself will most probably be incidental to the final score.

Barring a buzzer-beater by either the Huskies (9-0) or Buckeyes (8-1), or overtime, or some significant injury, then one of two items depending on the winner will be shoving for attention through the normal Sunday sports landscape dominated by the National Football League.

The less likely, though not improbable, of the two is that an upset by another Philly-born coach and his team will have once again stopped the powerful Huskies from tying the fabled NCAA Division I win streak of 88 games set by the UCLA men’s team (1971-74) under Hall of Fame coach John Wooden, who died at age 99 earlier this year.

Otherwise it will be on to Tuesday night’s game at the off-campus XL Center second arena home in Hartford against No. 15 Florida State to try to establish the new standard.

The original team and Philly pal of UConn coach Geno Auriemma to do damage was Villanova and Harry Perretta when they ended the Huskies’ then-record women’s run at 70 games in 2003 in the Big East championship game at Rutgers.

However, the Huskies quickly picked themselves up and dusted themselves off to grab another NCAA championship. That was the second in that series and it occurred a year after four key starters – Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones -- graduated and became four of the top six first-round picks in the WNBA draft.

UConn then added another title for good measure a year later, led in both championships by future WNBA All-Star Diana Taurasi.

It then got quiet for a while for the Huskies as Baylor, Maryland, and then Tennessee twice went home with the NCAA championship trophy from 2005-08.

That second Tennessee title, which was won in 2008, occurred at the same Final Four that Stanford upset Connecticut in the semifinals. The Huskies had beaten the Cardinal in December but that was before losing Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene to injuries.

Had those subtractions not occurred perhaps the record by UCLA might have already shifted ownership to the Huskies.

However, since then, except for an escape in the second-half from then No. 2 Stanford in last season’s NCAA title game and a narrow one-point survival last month in Hartford against No. 2 Baylor, it’s been a dominating run of 87 straight leading to Sunday’s game in the Garden.

Considering the locale, where what looms as a record crowd for a collegiate women’s game in the Garden, covered by perhaps a record number of media types for a regular season women’s game – reportedly over 100 credentials have been issued – it will be interesting to see how the confrontation compares to events from elsewhere that have been staged in the world-renowned venue.

Will it rock like Bruce Springsteen? Will it be a heavyweight battle? Or will the main event flow in the manner of a set of melodies chanted by either Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand?

When the current UConn schedule was being formed over the last several seasons long before events have locked the moment in place it, it was unforeseen that another Philly guy would try to guide his team in the way of another Huskies’ march to history.

It was amusing itself when the Wildcats and Perretta made headlines at the expense of the Huskies in March 2003.
“If it had to be anybody, I’m glad it was Harry,” Auriemma said after the game.

Of course he had a few more things to say in a different vein several weeks later when Perretta revealed he had been receiving gift ties from Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the archrival Hall of Famer of all things UConn.

Now not only is it another Philly guy’s turn to try to keep UConn away from a page in the history books, but it is also a former boss of the Naismith Hall of Famer who grew up in Norristown not far from the city limits.

Ohio State coach Jim Foster is the man who coaxed Auriemma into women’s basketball when he hired him as an assistant to coach at Bishop McDevitt High in suburban Philadelphia in the mid-1970s.

Foster then brought Auriemma along as an aide when Foster was hired prior to the 1978-79 season to coach at St. Joseph’s.
Auriemma stayed one season and then returned to the Catholic League as an aide to Phil Martelli, the boys’ coach then at Bishop Kenrick who now heads the St. Joseph’s men’s team.

Then Auriemma got hired as an assistant women’s coach at Virginia under Debbie Ryan before getting the UConn women’s job in 1985.

Incidentally, when Auriemma left, Foster replaced him on the staff with former Hawks star Muffet McGraw, now the longtime Notre Dame coach who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., in June.

Also, a person instrumental in Auriemma’s hire at UConn was current Hartford athletic director Pat Meiser, a former Penn State women’s basketball coach who was then the Senior Women’s Administrator in the Huskies athletic department.

On Friday, during the teleconference to set up Sunday’s game, Foster recalled the circumstances of joining Foster’s high school staff.

“I was thinking he was being a little bit pain in the ass asking me all the time,” Auriemma said. “And I didn’t want to do it. That was my thought process. I don’t want to do it. And I kept saying I don’t want to do it.

“And he kept asking me to do it. And finally I said, `Fine, I’ll do it.” But it wasn’t like I’m jumping in this and it’s an opportunity of a lifetime, it’s a break I’ve always been looking for – it was none of that.

“I just said, `I’ll do it. And then I can move on with the rest of my life at some point.’ One thing led to another and I guess I got stuck in it and now I find out it was a pretty good place to get stuck.”

Foster, meanwhile, became a mover and shaker for the start of Big Five women’s competition that began in the 1979-80 season. He was an assistant to former Rutgers and Illinois coach Theresa Grentz on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Silver medalists, the same year after he had become the coach at Vanderbilt.

He then moved to Columbus to revive Ohio State’s stature as a national force out of the Big Ten conference.

Renie Shields, the compliance director at St. Joseph’s, was a freshman with the Hawks out of West Catholic High when Foster and Auriemma arrived on the scene.

A daughter Kerri is a star at Boston College while another one Erin – both played at Archbishop Carroll in the Philly burbs – is at St. Joseph’s as a freshman.

Shields, who also does color commentary at St. Joseph’s women’s games, recently recalled her introduction to the two after she had been recruited by previous Hawks coach Rene Portland.

“I had very little knowledge of who Jim or Geno were, other than the former coaches at Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote, Pa.,” Shields recalled.

“We, West Catholic, had played them the previous season and I knew they had a good reputation from the coaching they had done there,” Shields continued.

“Of course once they got to SJU they had some big shoes to fill since the previous coaches were Theresa Grentz and Rene Portland. From day one they had to earn the respect of the team members who had spent time with Rene. That, earning the respect of the team members, was a huge challenge for Jim and Geno,” Shields added.

“I can remember Jim as the thinker/analyzer, he was the one who made me understand why `We were doing what we were doing.’

“Geno, on the other hand, was the one with the `just get it done’ attitude, no time for reasons why/why not or excuses. He motivated and he challenged me.”

An assistant on Foster’s Ohio State staff is Debbie Black, the former Hawk playmaker in the late 1980s who helped St. Joseph’s get into the rankings and thus put Foster’s name on the national landscape.

She went on to All-Star status in the former American Basketball League and later won the hearts of Connecticut women’s hoops fans when she finished her career playing for the WNBA Connecticut Sun.

“I certainly remember her on the court and if she were to step out on the court (Sunday), I’d have to get a plane to find (Hartford coach and former Huskies star Jennifer) Rizzotti out there so I could have somebody match her intensity level,” Auriemma said of Black.

“And I don’t think there’s been a player who’s played harder and competed harder than I’ve seen in all my years than Debbie Black did and she’s probably had something do with the development of (Samantha) Prahalis and their guards and I’m not surprised at all, to be honest with you. Not surprised at all.”

Now all that remains for Sunday is whether Auriemma’s Philly roots become the thorns to sting the Huskies’ hides once more as they did in 2003 or simply become something brushed aside on the road to basketball immortality.

But that declaration, if UConn wins, must wait another 48 hours until the Huskies try to dispense Florida State to establish a new number.

Then if achieved, that number will continue to change as the previous women’s mark did through 2003 when Villanova for a brief moment found a way to stop the dial.

-- Mel


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