With the two great winning streaks finally equal — regardless of whether they are considered equal — UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma was greeted on the Madison Square Garden court by a friendly face.
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Gail Goodrich didn’t play on the John Wooden UCLA men’s teams that won 88 consecutive games from 1971 to ’74, but he was every bit a part of the great Wooden legacy, and Auriemma, long a fan of Goodrich’s playing style, invited him to witness what, by late Sunday afternoon, had become historical fact.
After pounding No. 11 Ohio State 81-50 in the Maggie Dixon Classic, top-ranked UConn matched UCLA’s streak of 88 consecutive victories. Come Tuesday in Hartford, Conn., the Huskies can claim the Division I basketball record all to themselves with a victory over No. 15 Florida State.
But even if the streak goes beyond 100 and even if the Huskies do the unthinkable and complete a third consecutive undefeated season, there will always be those who refuse to equate the UConn and UCLA streaks any more than Mars can be mistaken for Venus.
"There’s a lot of things out there I can’t explain," Auriemma said. "I can’t explain all the sociological things going on. I just know there wouldn’t have been this much (media) if we were chasing a women’s record. The reason everyone is in this room, the reason everyone has been having a heart attack the last five days, is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men’s record. Everybody is all up in arms about it.
"If it was a women’s record, they’d all be like, ‘Isn’t that nice? Give them two paragraphs in USA Today and one line on the bottom of ESPN and send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.’ But because we’re breaking a men’s record, we have a lot of people paying attention."
But to dismiss the Huskies’ accomplishment on the basis of a gender gap is to miss the point of a remarkable achievement. Like that ’70s show in Westwood, the Huskies have taken on all comers — 28 of UConn’s victories have come against Top 25 opponents — and they have brought the same intensity, skill and work ethic to each game, in a way Wooden would surely have applauded. Only twice in 88 games has an opponent stayed within 10 points of the Huskies.
"It’s two different times, but kind of similar times, in terms of where both teams are in the course of basketball history," said UConn senior forward Maya Moore, who added to her all-time UConn scoring title with 22 points in Sunday’s win. "Both teams share the level of competitiveness, the expectation level that is above everyone else’s. (UCLA) showed that by going out and winning every night. This program is filled with a lot of special people who have invested their time and effort and passion into the game. We want people to remember how much we respect and love the game. Hopefully, they can see that when we play."
Auriemma has done his best to downplay the streak as it rolled toward history. Even as he carried a Wooden-authored tome in his briefcase last season, the Sorcerer of Storrs has tried to keep the streak in some form of perspective, even as the debate over its legitimacy has raged around him.
For Auriemma, a 2006 Naismith Hall of Fame entrant, and his seven-time national championship program, the winning streak is perhaps the final frontier of his program’s relentless march to basketball immortality.
"Whether you agree or disagree with the time, the era, the competitive balance, whatever your take on it is, you can find any spin you want on it and make it better, the same or less. It’s just a matter of how you choose to look at it," Auriemma said. "One thing that’s non-negotiable, the one thing we have in common, is that we settle for nothing less than the absolute best that we can give you, every single day and night. There’s very few people that do that. They did it, and we’re doing it."
From Rebecca Lobo to Sue Bird to Diana Taurasi to Moore, Auriemma’s approach has been the same. Whether going 35-0 in 1995, winning 70 in a row from 2001 to ’03, or standing on today’s precipice of a triple-digit winning streak, Auriemma has stressed — and demanded — work ethic, teamwork and attention to detail, often making his practices far more challenging than the actual games.
"You learn a lot from losing," Auriemma said. "If you lose, you’re determined not to let that happen again. But if you win, what motivates you? That’s something that comes from deep inside you, what you stand for. (Madison Square Garden) has probably hosted more great things than any other arena in America. So whether it’s Bono out there or Springsteen, they didn’t come out here and have to screw it up and have the fans boo for them to learn what’s really good and what’s not.
"They practice day and night, screw it up, somebody gets pissed, and then they make sure they get it exactly right when people are paying money to watch them perform. So we don’t have to lose on game day for us to know what is winning and what is losing. We lose every day. We just don’t like to lose when people are watching."