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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Guru's Take: Geno's Gifts of Gab and Gabby Take UConn Women to a Century of Consecutive Wins

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

STORRS, Conn. – The gift of gab got Hall of Fame Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma quickly established as one of the top personalities in his sport a bit before his Huskies began to hit their stride as a national force.

The gift of Gabby got Auriemma and his storied program their 100th straight win Monday night here before a sellout crowd of 10,167 in their campus arena Gampel Pavilion and another moment that will be talked about for the ages.

Junior 5-11 forward Gabby Williams double doubled her way to a career-high 26 points and 14 rebounds on a stat line that also included four assists, two blocked shots, and four steals to send the top-ranked Huskies to their newest crowning achievement via 66-55 triumph over No. 6 South Carolina.

"She's an extraordinary talent," Auriemma said of Williams. “And you hear that word a lot, `she’s special, or this player’s special,’ there’s nothing special about Gabby.

“The term special gets thrown around like it’s ordinary. She’s not special. What she is is an extraordinary athlete who understands that she is and then tries to live up to it and not everybody does and her basketball skills have caught up and they’re not completely caught up yet to her extraordinary talent.

“When that time comes when her basketball skills completely catch up, then it will be the next wave of women’s basketball players that we see come along. There’s no one else like her in all of college basketball,” Auriemma praised.

“Someone send me a video tomorrow, someone’s like her and I’ll change my mind. But there isn’t. There isn’t now. And that’s the Notre Dame game against Notre Dame and tonight against South Carolina. So it’s not like she’s doing it against teams where she overwhelms them with her ability.

“She’s done it in the biggest games against the best teams.”

As soon as the final buzzer went off to officially put the outcome into the history book, fake $100 bills with Auriemma’s picture began falling from the ceiling.

"You can spend them anywhere but at Geno's at Mohegan," he joked to friends afterwards referring to his dining establish at the entertainment-casino venue an hour from here near New London that is also home to the WNBA Connecticut Sun.

As for what happened here, one must hand it to the basketball gods, who at times set everything up at the right place and the right time.

For example, say the fates would have gotten UConn (25-0) to its moment of new acclaim this past Saturday when the Huskies hosted a much less talented SMU squad as part of the slate in the American Athletic Conference.

The event would have been a coronation proceeding even before both teams took the court.

But, instead, the lopsided triumph was simply win No. 99, setting the stage for the arrival of the Gamecocks (21-3), who have been built by the legendary Dawn Staley into one of the elite at the level just under UConn, which at this point until proven otherwise is in a class by itself.

Thus the looming matchup created some speculation as to the possibility that maybe 99 would be the stopping point, just as it had been five years ago this week when St. John’s Shenneika Smith nailed a three-pointer with eight seconds remaining to end the NCAA record 99-straight home wins held by the Huskies.

That game was also the first time UConn had lost to an unranked opponent in 19 seasons.

With the element of suspense alive and the game already built into ESPN’s Big Monday schedule, the sports TV giant went all out all day with programming around the potential milestone.

Ironically, though, just as Auriemma and his Huskies began in relative obscurity, an outstanding game on the front end of the night's broadcast twin bill between eventual winner Texas over Florida State  spilled into overtime, forcing the UConn/SC game to begin airing on ESPN News until ESPN2’s runway was cleared.

And for the first half, led by all-America A’ja Wilson, it appeared Staley’s Gamecocks might pull off the upset, trailing only 35-29, with Wilson scoring 12 of her 17 points. Alaina Coates had 10 points and 15 rebounds on the night.

Williams at the break already had 16 while Napheesa Collier had 13 of her 18 points for the homee team.

“Just being patient, making them play a little longer defensively, taking the air out of the ball,” Staley said of her strategy. “I just thought for 18 minutes of the first half, it favored our game plan. And then we had those turnovers and they went and scored uncontested layups and deflated us.”

From a coaching standpoint, this game between Auriemma and Staley, who served as one of his assistants last summer in Brazil on his second run to Olympic gold, could have been played in the Palestra in Philadelphia.

Auriemma, who grew up in the nearby western suburb of Norristown, spent his early hoops life in the Catholic League, while Staley, who starred at Dobbins Tech, plied her skills in the Public League becoming one of the city’s all-time legends.

But back to the present, if you were here or watched TV and witnessed No. 100 in the ongoing UConn extended NCAA record streak Monday night, you’ve seen them all, or the ones that really mean something.

Every time it looks like the Huskies might be had, as early in the year with Florida State, Baylor, and Maryland, to name a few of the powerful non-conference opponents, UConn would slam the door down the stretch.

This isn’t where nearly everyone thought back in the preseason that UConn would be at this point in time. The star-studded 1-2-3 WNBA draft pick trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck had graduated.

And other schools among the prominent also rans of 2016 had loads of talent returning.

But UConn escaped Florida State at the last second, turned Baylor aside in the season home opener here a few days later and that was enough to send the locomotive engine churning the same way that brought 11 NCAA titles, four of them straight courtesy of Stewart, and a previous record 90 win streak accomplished several seasons ago.

As it is, were not the last loss occurred off a late blown lead and narrow final score at Stanford, Monday night would have been consecutive number 148 into the archives.

That this edition of the UConn dynasty reached the century win number has been especially pleasing to Auriemma.

“There were a lot of good players sitting in the stands tonight,” Auriemma said, with a quip, about many of his all-time greats who returned to their alma mater. “And when I turned around from the bench one time, I almost called a couple of them down.

“And there were a lot of wins up in the stands tonight. And a lot of championships. If this would have been done by last year’s team, I think it would have been less heroic. Because it would have been, `Of course they’re suppose to. Look who they have, the three best players in America.’

“For this team to do it, given where we started and where people projected us to be, who we had coming back and given who everybody else had coming back, for them to do it, is very appropriate.

“And they probably feel better about it than probably last year’s team would have – a big win like this against a really good team in an amazing environment. We had to do it under somewhat difficult circumstances, you know – ‘Lou (Katie Lou Samuelson) struggling like she did, Kia (Nurse) not being able to run, and the foul problems we had at the end, but somehow or another we figured out a way to do it.

"You can't describe that Gabby Williams comes here and not has any expectations of being Maya Moore and (then) gives a Maya Moore performance tonight, exactly when she needed it, the way it needed to be done.

“Do we know when it was going to happen? No. We just know when we recruit kids it’s going to happen, we trust it. And they believe it because they expect it. We just don’t know when it’s going to happen. And it has a tendency to happen in the biggest moments. And we can’t explain why, it just is.

“We don’t have a magic formula and go into a lab and conjure up things that  come out like Young Frankenstein. We don’t have that.

“ So unless you are in our locker room every day, and unless you are at our practice every day, and unless you go through what these kids go through every day and put up with what they put up with every day from us as a coaching staff, it is impossible to explain.”

As soon as the game was over, the social universe exploded with tweets and face book posts, among other platforms, offering congratulations and other reactions from notables to just the male and female John and Johanna Q. Fans.

But as for Auriemma and his charges, keeping the win meter running is just fine, and, yeah, it can stop and start again, if it does, as long as it happens before March Madness.

That’s the time when chef Auriemma and his Huskies will be ready to hit the kitchen with their annual fish fry.

"I hope we can focus on the season and what's coming up next and whatever's in store for this team," he said. "Let's get it over with and move onto the next thing which is more important in the big scheme of things for these players anyway. This 100-win streak isn't theirs but if they win a national championship that's all theirs.
"That means a lot more if we're able to do that down the road."