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Saturday, January 16, 2010
Updated: January 17, 5:45 PM ET
Another one of UConn's all-time greats

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- Tina Charles didn't pay much attention to a certain WNBA trade this past week. You know, the one that included the No. 1 pick, which she is expected to be come April.

She has other things on her mind. Namely, clobbering every team her No. 1 UConn Huskies face. She did it again Saturday in another game that turned into what, frankly, most observers feared it would: another UConn rout, 70-46 over No. 3 Notre Dame.

This one wasn't necessarily distinguishable from others like it, save the ESPN "College GameDay" attention and the stronger-than-average student support at Gampel Pavilion.

Tina Charles
Tina Charles had eight field goals -- same as Notre Dame -- in the first half, then finished with 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting and 13 boards.

The anticipation for the "big game" was there … but the "big game" didn't actually show up. Instead, it was another Huskies hurricane, an all-out blitz from the tip that left the Irish looking like anything but a previously undefeated team that could contend for a Final Four berth.

"We can't think ahead to March," said Irish coach Muffet McGraw, referring to their rematch with UConn in South Bend, Ind. "We've got a lot of important stuff to do before we get to March. The Big East is going to be a challenge for us. We need to get better.

"[The players] are disappointed in the way we played. We shoot the ball fairly well, and 3-for-19 [from 3-point range] isn't anywhere near what we should have been. We couldn't attack them inside. We couldn't take them off the dribble. Forty-six points? That surprises me."

Indeed, because Notre Dame really is a good team. It's just that UConn is a great team. And Charles has evolved into a great player.

"It's hard to put into words what Tina's been doing," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma after Charles' 23-point, 13-rebound performance. "She just made some plays today that were so aggressive, so strong -- stuff that great players do. We used to see that once in awhile, and now we're starting to see it every game, throughout the whole game.

"It's been a lot of fun to watch the change in her over the last two years. It's been rewarding for her because she put a lot of time and effort into it. It couldn't happen to a nicer kid. I just think right now she's playing as well as anybody I've had."

You might be a little blown away by that remark, because "anybody" Auriemma has coached is a list of some of the best players women's basketball has ever seen.

But that's the fascinating thing about Charles. Perhaps because she didn't play particularly well in the NCAA tournament her first two years, perhaps because teammate Maya Moore has been so spectacular … whatever the case, Charles has almost crept up into greatness.

Which is not to say it's a surprise. After all, last season Auriemma said the Huskies would win or lose a national championship based on how Charles played, and she played at championship level in their perfect season.

Still, to see her now so totally dominate opponents inside, to see her shoot 9-of-12 like she did Saturday, you realize you aren't just watching one of the best players this season. Charles is one of the best players UConn has ever had.

She just made some plays today that were so aggressive, so strong -- stuff that great players do. We used to see that once in awhile, and now we're starting to see it every game, throughout the whole game. It's been a lot of fun to watch the change in her over the last two years. … I just think right now she's playing as well as anybody I've had."

-- UConn coach Geno Auriemma on senior Tina Charles

Right now, if you took a poll of those award-voters who truly follow women's hoops, Charles likely would be the unanimous winner for national player of the year. And she should be.

"I feel like she's one of those people where you can see it in her: She just wants to get better and wants to dominate," said Moore, who got most preseason nods for player of the year, and had 20 points and 11 rebounds Saturday. "You know she wants the ball. I'm so proud of the way she's being consistent this year and dominating."

Yeah, that's the word -- dominate -- we keep using with UConn. The Huskies now have won 56 consecutive games, and all of them by double digits. Their lone challenge this season was Dec. 23 when Stanford led the Huskies at halftime -- before UConn (here's that word again) dominated the second half and won by 12.

Notre Dame, despite having so much senior experience, wilted under the UConn deluge. It was 17-2 Huskies less than six minutes in, and the rest of the game was almost academic.

Except … not quite. UConn doesn't ease up; every game is about pursuit of playing perfectly. So there were things that Auriemma could find fault with, such as UConn's 2-of-18 shooting from behind the arc. Or the fact that Notre Dame had 20 offensive rebounds (of course, the Irish also shot 26.9 percent from the floor). Tiffany Hayes didn't score. The Huskies had 18 turnovers. There still isn't a lot of production coming off the bench.

Considering the whopping the Huskies still put on the Irish, those might seem like very incidental things. But they won't be seen as such by Auriemma. Or, for that matter, by Charles, who has taken on the scorched-earth persona her coach always wanted her to have.

Charles isn't about to let up one bit. Next up is No. 7 Duke (15-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), where the Cameron Crazies will do everything they can to distract Charles and her top-ranked team. She's ready for that.

"I'm excited," she said, grinning. "Just watching games there, the atmosphere in that gym."

Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault sat at courtside watching Saturday, thinking about how well Charles will play for his team this summer. On Tuesday, he traded point guard Lindsay Whalen and the No. 2 draft pick to Minnesota for former Huskies player Renee Montgomery and the No. 1 pick. Thibault feels Charles will be an outstanding player for a long time at the next level.

Right now, she already looks like she's at the next level.

"I know my days here are numbered," Charles said. "I know how much this program means to me. I feel great.

"Coach always says to us perfection is unattainable, but if you chase it, you'll catch excellence. He always asked me, 'How many times do you think you do that?' I said, 'Sometimes.' But now I'm trying to do it on a consistent basis."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.