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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Guru's Musings: UConn Seemed Doomed At Hands Of Stanford

By Mel Greenberg

For all the success of the Connecticut women’s basketball program, perhaps more so in terms of notoriety even beyond the head start performance at the top by Tennessee, there have been certain interventions by fate and irony along the way.

Perhaps 90 was the nice round number and no more selected by the basketball Gods to give to the top-ranked Huskies (12-1) and coach Geno Auriemma in establishing a new win streak record for Division I collegiate basketball that ended with Thursday night’s 71-59 defeat at No. 9 Stanford (9-2) in Palo Alto, Calif.

From the moment the Cardinal were put to rest by UConn in last season’s NCAA title game for the Huskies’ second consecutive unbeaten crown, Stanford stood as a major barrier to the continuation of the Huskies’ achievement once the date was established for the next meeting between the two super programs this season.

In most situations over the years, the arrival of Connecticut in an opponent gym would somehow cause the other team that was a serious challenger to be unable to handle the extra distractions caused by increases of its home crowd and media attention.

The week long hype involving the 1-2 game at Duke during the Diana Taurasi era several years ago comes to mind as an example. That’s when Auriemma pushed the buttons of the enemy student fans during a teleconference mentioning how he was aware of many Blue Devils graduates these days working in restaurants while discussing a player who had chosen Duke over the Huskies for the sake of a better diploma.

Though an underdog in that particular matchup, UConn established a deep one-sided lead early in the contest that was enough to withstand Duke after the Blue Devils regained their footing down the stretch.

Stanford was not in danger of suffering a similar collapse under the weight of the so-called Connecticut circus for several reasons.

The Cardinal play protecting their home court in Maples in the last several years has been as solid as Fort Knox. Their last loss was a 68-61 upset by Florida State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The exception to Maples’ solid defenses comes with the territory. The court has a certain bounce-like give, which the Guru experienced one time watching a practice. The give is built into the venue that helps keep the place earthquake resistant.

Anyhow, returning to this discussion, appearances in the last three Final Fours already conditioned Stanford to the added attention a matchup with UConn would bring. And perhaps the fates that seem to conspire to stop the Huskies from total lifetime rule also decided that the Cardinal made the perfect bookend to UConn’s record run which started after and ended with Stanford as the other team on the high end of the scoreboard.

Because of its publication date in late February or early March, most of you would not have had the pleasure of reading in advance Bird at the Buzzer, the excellent book by former Hartford Courant women’s beat writer Jeff Goldberg that focuses on the 2001 Big East title game won by Sue Bird against Notre Dame with two long-range bombs at the end of the half and end of the game.

The Guru, who was given a copy he was able to read while imprisoned at home by the weekend snow, was able to relieve the histories of both the Huskies and Irish, which is extensively covered in the book.

He mentions it because the book enables one to remember the years of UConn hardships in the late 1990s when the Huskies continued to be cut down by key injuries prior to Regional play in the wake of winning their first NCAA unbeaten title in 1995.

That string of misfortunes final stopped with the second national trophy that was acquired in 2000 with a certain destiny attached when the Final Four was held in Auriemma’s stomping grounds in Philadelphia.

But then came the following 2001 season. When Midnight Madness arrived to start practice, that particular UConn edition assembled appeared to be the best ever.

However, the Notre Dame bunch was also quite talented and when the Huskies arrived in South Bend for their regular season Big East encounter, it was the Irish who were more fired up to finally end the string of losses that had been applied to them since joining the conference.

While UConn got even in the Big East championship contest courtesy of Bird’s personal missile attacks, it was Notre Dame that had the final say in the NCAA semifinals over the Huskies when Taurasi, then a freshman, suddenly had nothing but blank bullets in her arsenal and the Irish went on to win their only title.

UConn had been hampered in February by the foot injury suffered by Svetlana Abrosimova near the end of a game at Tennessee. Next came the tragic third knee injury to Shea Ralph, now a UConn assistant, during the Big East championship that ended her collegiate career.

Eerily, additions and subtractions were also part of the hand dealt the Huskies heading into Thursday’s visit to Stanford.

The additions involved two Big East games inserted into the December portion of the schedule caused to balance things up because of outside games during conference play ahead involving televised matchups at North Carolina and at home against Duke and Oklahoma.

But if events held otherwise as originally expected, UConn would now be only tied with the UCLA men and their mark of 88 established under John Wooden between 1971 and 1974 which ironically also has bookends attached, but in the name of Notre Dame instead of Stanford.

Then there are the subtractions to consider. Most observers have said that had not Elena Delle Donne left after one day on campus and remained a Huskie in 2008, this would have been the season she would have had her biggest impact when she would be a junior following the graduations of Tina Charles and Kalana Greene.

But that could be a wash considering her own fate at the moment, being sidelined with back problems keeping her out of the lineup at Delaware where she enrolled near her home.

More important, as was the basketball tragedy involving Ralph, was the third knee injury to Caroline Doty, the former Germantown Academy star, who is out of action again after the incident happened during last summer.

Furthermore, perhaps it didn’t hurt Stanford to suffer two losses, a shocker at DePaul when the Cardinal played shorthanded, and an overtime defeat at Tennessee. That removed any win-streak pressure heading into the Connecticut game.

Additionally, coach Tara VanDerveer was able to successfully execute a major test on Tuesday with a lopsided win at home over soon-to-no-longer-be No. 4 Xavier that had just suffered a narrow loss at No. 3 Duke.

The biggest threat to UConn this season to date heading into the trip west came in Game No. 2, a narrow escape over No. 2 Baylor.

So in many ways, Thursday’s events also had similarities involved when the former women’s streak record of 70 held by the Huskies came to an end in the Big East title game of 2003 at the hands of Villanova.

The Wildcats, especially with their methodical style of play, had the experience that night over the much younger Huskies team that would not have had much of a past drawing previous Villanova encounters.

Stanford on Thursday held the upper hand at Maples with a veteran and equally talented lineup.

Ironically, two streaks are alive for the Huskies, though one might die this weekend, and they exist as UConn’s next opponent, of all people, Villanova, which will visit Storrs and Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday.

Coach Harry Perretta’s group finally broke out of a maddening scoring slump the last two days with wins at Fordham’s tournament over Siena and Yale.

Still, the Wildcats will be a heavy underdog when UConn tries to return to winning ways, which would result in establishing a new home court win record at 70, the overall number Villanova stopped in 2003. The Huskies are currently tied with themselves and Tennessee at 69 for the current record.

Then there’s 51 straight weeks UConn has been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press women’s poll. Had the loss been much closer perhaps the Huskies would still be No. 1 But now it would appear that they could fall as low as third behind Baylor and Duke, while Stanford with upsets of a No. 4 and No. 1 should bolt back into the Top 5.

Overall, women’s basketball has been the real winner the last month. The UConn drive for the win streak record injected the sport into the mainstream conversation at a time NFL playoffs and bowl games are the dominating topics on talk shows and in the media.

And with the playing field appeared to be leveled a bit by the Huskies’ defeat, the race for the 2011 NCAA title has something that has been lacking the last two seasons – suspense the rest of the way straight into the finals in Indianapolis.

ELSEWHERE ON THE PLANET:

The Guru would have liked to simply ended today’s post in column mode. But other events on Thursday, including those by local teams, deserve to be noticed.

As mentioned, Villanova has now hit the 50s twice in scoring and winning games after having had trouble getting into the 40s. The Wildcats (7-6) completed a sweep of the Fordham Classic in New York with a 57-44 win over Yale (3-9) as Laura Sweeney and Lindsay Kimmel each scored 15 points.

Delaware, playing without Delle Donne, also as mentioned, got back into the win column, easily beating Alcorn State 76-36 in the consolation game of the Virginia Tech tournament as Lauren Carra scored 15 points for the Blue Hens (7-4).

Next up is a Colonial Athletic Association opener Sunday at home against Hofstra, which fell to former UConn assistant Jamelle Elliott’s Cincinnati team 65-63 in the consolation game of San Diego’s tournament. The Pride’s Shante Evans, a graduate of West Chester Henderson High, had 17 points and a career-high 19 rebounds.

Temple (7-6) again came up with a great effort against No. 3 Duke (13-0), this time in Durham, N.C., at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the Owls fell short 71-64 and now need a dynamic run through the Atlantic 10 schedule to get back into the NCAA tournament conversation.

Karima Christmas, who bedeviled Temple so to speak last season in Philadelphia, again struck with 20 points while the Owls’ Qwedia Wallace scored a game-high 21 points.

Penn State (12-3) is definitely in the NCAA mix and perhaps even in the next AP poll mix, after rallying to upset No. 14 Iowa 68-59 at home in the Bryce Jordan Center in the Big Ten opener for both teams as the Hawkeyes fell to 12-2.

Alex Bentley scored 19 points for the Nittany Lions.

Rutgers (7-6) was routed at No. 5 Tennessee 87-51, as the Vols (12-2) dominated the boards with a 46-27 rebounding advantage. April Sykes scored 15 points for the Scarlet Knights.

Khadijah Rushdan was sidelined for Rutgers with a bruised knee suffered in the loss to Texas A&M a week ago Sunday in the Maggie Dixon Classic.

Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer expressed displeasure over the schools’ inability to re-schedule the game.

Apparently many of her players had trouble returning to campus after the Christmas break because of the weekend snow and the team left on the charter flight to Knoxville without having a practice in advance of the game.

Next up for Rutgers is George Washington, which hasn’t been seen since Valley Forge.

Drexel (8-3) finished with its best nonconference record under Denise Dillon as the Dragons topped Texas-San Antonio, 64-37, dropping the opposition to 4-9 after the third place game of San Diego State’s tournament. The Dragons’ Kamile Nacickaite scored 16 points.

No. 13 Ohio State (8-4) lost its fourth game of its last five, falling at Michigan 64-51 as the Wolverines improved to 8-5 after the Big Ten opener for both schools.

Finally, on a technical note: Back in 1998 when Stanford was on the bad side of history, losing as a No. 1 seed to No. 16 Harvard in an NCAA tournament opener at home, the Guru was in Columbus at the former ABL championship and listened to the game on his computer in his hotel room courtesy via Stanford’s radio station in the early days of the internet.

Thursday night, while handling other information working at a laptop station in his FedEx store headquarters, the Guru watched the ESPN stream of the UConn game, courtesy of the free wifi available in the store.

Happy New Year!

-- Mel

5 Comments:

Blogger Tim Mann said...

Just a small nitpick: Maples was remodeled several years ago, and the infamous bouncy floor is no more.

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