January 14, 2017, published on Bleacher Report
Connecticut wasn’t satisfied with leading SMU by 24 points at the end of the first quarter, 26 at the end of the half, 35 at the end of the third Saturday afternoon. UConn refused to give an inch until the final buzzer sounded.
With the 88-48 win, the top-ranked women’s basketball team ascended into hoops immortality. The 11-time national champion Huskies won their 91st straight game, setting the longest streak for consecutive wins in NCAA Division I history for men or women.
But Connecticut has been here before.
Having topped John Wooden’s legendary UCLA streak of 88 consecutive wins (1971-74) when it won 90 straight (2008-10), the Huskies have outdone themselves.
“So many things that have happened at UConn are just beyond anybody’s expectations, beyond anybody’s imagination,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said on the SportsNet New York broadcast after the historic win. “It’s almost like it’s a fairy tale. It’s the kind of thing you can’t ever plan for or anticipate.”
How could two completely different Huskies teams achieve the improbable in just over six years?
“That’s definitely something [Auriemma] instills in us while we’re there: never be satisfied with what you’re doing,” Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes, who helped UConn set the 2008-10 record, told Bleacher Report.
“Even if you’re having a good practice, you can always have a great one,” Hayes said. “His thing was, you can’t be perfect, but if you’re chasing perfection, you can catch excellence.”
Attack, attack, attack
Gabby Williams swatted a shot. The ball landed in the hands of Kia Nurse, who blazed upcourt and dished to Katie Lou Samuelson in the post, who then whipped a one-handed pass to Williams at the rim for the and-1 layup.
Up by 14 in the first quarter against No. 20 South Florida on Tuesday, the Huskies drew more blood. On the next play, Napheesa Collier intercepted a pass, dove on the floor to retrieve the ball and threw it ahead to SaniyaChong on the break. Chong dropped the ball to Samuelson for a layup in what would become a 102-37 massacre.
This is how the Huskies, who tied their previous streak of 90 that night, squeeze the soul of teams: There is no letup between possessions, between games, between seasons. They sink their teeth in from the tip until the final buzzer, a constant clench whereby dominance is a commitment rather than an aspiration.
“Incredible,” Marques Johnson, member of UCLA’s 88-game record-setting team, told Bleacher Report, referring to UConn’s streak. “They have this attitude, this kind of attack, aggressive kind of attitude. It’s more like, ‘I’m coming at you. I’m coming at you. Every time we get it, we’re coming at you.'”
That mentality is honed in UConn’s practices. Details matter—palms facing the right direction in the passing lane, feet squared at the right angle for a catch-and-shoot jumper. Drills are executed over and over and over until completed perfectly.
That’s how the group that set the previous record beat teams by a blistering 33.3 points a night on average—with players like Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery. Hayes, part of that group, remembers a drill called “four-on-seven”: four on defense, seven on offense. The drill wouldn’t end until the defense made a stop, no matter how much their legs felt like they’d fall off, no matter how long the drill would run over the allotted time.
“There were no excuses,” Hayes said. “We just had to do it.”
The current Huskies, who began their own streak in November 2014, also seek perfection. They complete three-man weaves, up and back, in 11 seconds. They sprint to water breaks. They yell on the sidelines. They dive for loose balls.
“We make sure that we push ourselves to the very point of fatigue,” Williams told Bleacher Report, “and when you’re at the point where you think you’re going to break, how focused can you be and how much can you push through? I think that’s the difference between us and everyone else.”
Connecticut jerseys, navy and white, don’t display players’ last names on the back. Identities come second to the one stitched across the front.
Even as Auriemma once told the press UConn would win because, “We have Diana [Taurasi] and you don’t,” he and his staff condition all players, stars or subs, to be ready at any moment. Sustaining two streaks—plus a third lasting 70 games (2001-03)—requires each player to conform to one system: the defense smothers, the ball moves quickly; adapt or find another team.
“You have to give up a lot of yourself in order to play here,” Williams said.
Johnson learned that as a freshman for UCLA in 1973, playing alongside veterans like Jamaal Wilkes, who blocked his shot every day at practice. Johnson’s Crenshaw High practices had centered around sprints. His UCLA practices were more about efficiency. Each drill was planned to the minute, like shooting an imaginary ball to perfect form or simulating a rebound and outlet pass to perfect pivoting.
Watching Bill Walton get thrown out of practice once for having his hair longer than team standards allow, Johnson realized there was only one way to play: Wooden’s way. “It was like an army,” said Johnson, who’d help the Bruins win their 10th national championship in 1975. “You didn’t want anybody standing out.”
“It’s all about the system. When you got Geno at UConn, when you got Wooden…it’s a system where you can plug in outstanding athletes year in and year out,” Johnson said. “It’s proven to be successful, so the better athletes you get to plug into that system, the more success you’re going to have.”
A bigger goal
Six seconds remained against No. 4 Maryland in late December. The game was in hand, as UConn pulled ahead, 87-81. But the Huskies continued to deny full speed on defense. Maryland’s Shatori Walker-Kimbrough released a three. In a blink, Chong swatted the ball so hard it sailed out of bounds.
There are no plays off for UConn, a team few expected to be as dominant as it is this season, considering the loss of Breanna Stewart, MoriahJefferson and Morgan Tuck. Beating eight ranked opponents, including Baylor and Notre Dame, who were both ranked No. 2 when they faced the Huskies, the players hardly ever discuss the streak. They just continue to block shots. Drain threes. Toss the ball around the perimeter.
“We can’t look past anybody,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, we have something bigger at hand, a bigger goal.”
Seeking a fifth consecutive national championship, the Huskies have done more than catch excellence. They’ve defined it.