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 10, 2010

UConn's March to 88 Straight: The Philly Angle

(Guru update: In this post adding to the list of St. Joseph's players when Geno Auriemma assisted Foster, the name of Renie (Dunne) Shields who was a freshman.)

(Guru’s note: There is another post under this one reporting on the Rutgers win and Villanova loss Thursday night. This begins the 10-day countdown anticipating the UConn women’s attempt to tie and then two days later break the fabled 88-game win streak by the UCLA men under the late John Wooden that was achieved 1971-74 until Notre Dame snapped it).


By Mel Greenberg

When Connecticut next plays No. 6 Ohio State on Dec. 19 before an expected sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden in the second matinee game of the Maggie Dixon Classic, the two-time defending NCAA champion Huskies will be out to tie the fabled 88-game win streak record in basketball set by the UCLA men under the late legend John Wooden.

The opponent Buckeyes, currently ranked No. 6, are also unbeaten at 7-0.

Ohio State is coached by Jim Foster, the individual who gave Hall of Fame Huskies coach Geno Auriemma his introduction to women’s basketball by hiring him as an assistant for the 1978-79 season when Foster became coach of St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, where the two grew up.

Technically, Foster was a product of the suburbs in Elkins Park, while Auriemma lived in Norristown.

If successful, over the Buckeyes, then two days later the Huskies (9-0) will have a chance to break the record when Florida State visits the expected sold out XL center in Hartford on Dec. 21.

In the Maggie Dixon Classic, named for the late Army coach who died tragically of a heart situation several days after in her first year at the helm, she had led the Black Knights to an NCAA appearance achieved the week earlier by capturing the Patriot League.

The first game of the event will feature Rutgers against Texas A&M.

On Thursday night after UConn beat Marquette 79-47 and Rutgers had upset No. 11 Georgetown, Scarlet Knights’ coach C. Vivian Stringer was asked how it felt to be associated with history that might occur that day.

Stringer smiled and made a quick remark, ending with “I’d rather be making history.”

She has already done that several times but for now courtesy of a 10-day break for exams, UConn can get ready to be the ones to earn immortal celebration if they achieve a new mark.

For the last several weeks back to the preseason, Auriemma has tried to downplay the looming event and deal with the games at hand. He even was unaware that Foster loomed on the other bench until he was told by the Guru of the potential scenario when the two were shooting the breeze at Big East Media Day – a tricky thing to do, by the way, in the House of Blues on 42nd Street in New York.

But after his team’s win in the Big East game Thursday night, Auriemma got a little more serious about the hoopla about to start surrounding the event.

"You can't hide from it," Auriemma said to reporters. "To me, it's like going to the Final Four for the first time and you're asked, 'What's this mean to you?' Obviously, next Sunday if we play lousy and they kick our (tails), it'll be because we choked. I'll have all the excuses ready."

For the moment, though, Ohio State still has some work ahead before becoming the other main headliner in the buildup to the showdown. The Buckeyes travel to Syracuse Saturday and then play South Carolina-Upstate, really, on Tuesday.

While the Connecticut media will have more blankets on this story then could be obtained to douse the Chicago Fire, the Guru has much to offer from the underbelly along the way.

So first, here’s a little insider involving a discussion through emails or whatever recently between Foster and Villanova’s Harry Perretta, who ended UConn’s previous existing Division I women’s record streak of 70 by winning the Big East title in 2003 at Rutgers.

The Huskies recovered by going on and winning another NCAA title several weeks later.

So this is what happens when you have three Philly guys in the mix around this event.

Foster recently sent Perretta a note after Villanova’s low-scoring 30-29 win last Thursday at home over Fairfield. The Guru can only imagine what’s next after the West Virginia 39-36 win over the Wildcats on Thursday night.

Anyhow, Foster, noting the low score, asked Perretta how he managed to have the wire services carry only Villanova halftime scores on the results file.

Perretta shrugged off the shot and began discussing the streak: “Well, it’s your turn to save Wooden in a couple of weeks. I had to do it the last time, now it’s on you.”

Foster responded, “You had nothing to do with it – it was all Shelly Pennefather.”

For you youngsters out there, Pennefather was a terrific player winning the Wade Award her senior year in the late 1980s but who several years later became a cloistered nun with limited access to the outside world.

After the upset, Perretta noted how Pennefather had communicated to him she would pray for her alma mater before the game.

“Geno heard about that (Foster conversation), and got to me real quick,” Perretta laughed Thursday night after the loss to West Virginia. “He thinks I’m trying to help Foster. I didn’t know he was afraid of me coaching teams that have trouble scoring 30 points.”

Incidentally, Villanova will humorously or not be referred to as a trap game on UConn’s schedule being sandwiched on January 5 between the Huskies’ visit to No. 3 Stanford on Dec. 30 and Big East visit to Notre Dame on January 8th.

The game is at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs on UConn’s campus.

Perretta is taking no chances, however, of further alienating his longtime friend Auriemma after the strategic help Perretta offered back in 2003 to Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the former national arch rival of the Huskies before she ended the series in 2007.

Perretta’s help was in the summer and not targeted to beat UConn, though that’s how it was humorously portrayed at time.

“So I was recently in Columbus (Ohio),” Perretta said Thursday night. “But I’m not taking any more chances. I didn’t call Foster, I didn’t visit him, I’m not going to get myself in trouble again with Geno.”

Threats To The Streak

Here are the potholes between now and the end of the season which will create more caution if the streak is not broken when each one appears.

The first is at Stanford on Dec. 30, which would be an attempt at 91st straight. The Cardinal were the last team to beat UConn in the 2008 national semifinals and almost pulled an all-time upset at last season’s title game before the Huskies prevailed in the second half.

The other spots, without naming the dates, on the rest of the regular season are the home-and-home games with Notre Dame, the visit to North Carolina and visits from Oklahoma and Duke, especially Duke if the streak is still alive.

Foster and Auriemma – the Early Days

Foster had been the girls’ high school coach at Bishop McDevitt in the Philly suburbs when St. Joseph’s hired Auriemma as an assistant upon getting the job beginning with the 1978-79 season.

Auriemma was gone after that, moving as an assistant in the Catholic League to current St. Joseph’s men’s coach Phil Martelli before hooking up with Debbie Ryan at Virginia.

You know, thinking about it, there must be something cosmic about Auriemma playing former bosses because his Huskies lost to the Cavaliers in the national semifinals in 1991 – UConn’s first trip to the Final Four.

Then in the magical 1995 season Virginia nearly tripped up the Huskies in Gampel in the regional final before UConn prevailed and moved on to Minneapolis.

There are three games of note that one 1978-79 season that Auriemma and Foster worked together.

The highlight was a loss at home to No. 1 Old Dominion, 97-62, which was on the way to the first of two national titles under Marianne Stanley.

That team had Nancy Lieberman and Inge Nissen. The following season is when Anne Donovan joined the Monarchs as a freshman.

St. Joseph’s also lost at home to Cheyney, coached then by Rutgers’ Stringer, 66-58. And then Rutgers, then coached by Theresa Grentz, beat the Hawks at The Barn – the RAC wasn’t built yet – 87-56

Incidentally, after Auriemma left Foster, he was replaced by former Hawk
All-American Muffet MGraw, now the coach at Notre Dame.

As for the roster, the key names – talk about a Guru memory with a little research out of the St. Joe media guide -- were:

Renie (Dunne) Shields, a freshman, whose one daughter Kerri now plays for Boston College and another Erin is a freshman with the Hawks, while Renie is now a compliance officer at her alma mater.
Joanne Burke, who later transferred to Rutgers after her sophomore season.
Sue Ridge
Jane Beisel, who had several sisters play at Villanova
Tina Dishman
“Disco” Debbie Descano
Dawn Hertz

Others were:
Flo Collington
Katie O’Donnaghue
And Carol Boyer, who was a key statistical leader on the Hawks.

UConn – The Legacy

Two spinoffs of the UConn ongoing eras collide Friday night when Hartford visits Temple at 7 in McGonigle Hall.

Hartford is coached by former UConn star Jennifer Rizzotti, who played a key role as a guard in winning the 1995 title.

Temple is coached by Tonya Cardoza, who was an assistant for 14 seasons to Auriemma at UConn and coached Rizzotti, who has now guided her Hawks to several America East titles and NCAA appearances.

Rizzotti’s team beat Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament several years ago – Dawn Staley was still with the Owls. Hartford also beat Temple up north last season.

The Owls are currently on a three-game win streak, including triumphs over Rutgers and at Auburn, while Hartford has been struggling.

OK, that should get you all going. Stay right here for regular Guru coverage, 88 game win streak coverage and a major announcement coming next week.

-- Mel

6 Comments:

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Loved the story Mel.

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