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NEW YORK -- The sizable lighted tree at Rockefeller Center, a mile or so from Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, is a reminder that this is a season for celebration. For Connecticut, it need not be a season of comparison.
One more win and the University of Connecticut women's basketball program will stand alone atop the mountain. At least, that's the conventional wisdom after the nation's top-ranked team defeated No. 10 Ohio State 81-50 on Sunday. With victory No. 88 in a row, and the 86th win by double digits during that same stretch, the Huskies matched the streak authored by John Wooden's UCLA men's teams nearly four decades ago as the longest in NCAA Division I basketball.
|UConn's Tiffany Hayes hit 10 of 17 shots for 26 points, and added six rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks.|
From a crowd of 15,232 -- more than double the attendance of last season's Maggie Dixon Classic featuring Baylor, Boston College, Rutgers and Tennessee, and a few hundred shy of the record for a women's college basketball game at Madison Square Garden -- to a media throng that might rival in size that which gathers in Indianapolis in April for the Final Four, it was evident there was a fifth team involved in Sunday's doubleheader. In this case, a fifth team whose presence greatly overshadowed what Texas A&M and Rutgers offered in the opening act.
Connecticut handled Ohio State with ease on the court. How it handled UCLA off the court was out of its hands.
"I just know that there wouldn't be this many people in the room if we were chasing a women's record," Geno Auriemma told a packed news conference in trademark sardonic fashion. "The reason there's everybody in this room, the reason everybody's having a heart attack the last four or five days is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men's record. And everybody is all up in arms about it. All the women are happy as hell and they can't wait to come in here and ask questions. All the guys that love women's basketball are all excited. And all the miserable bastards that follow men's basketball and don't want us to break the record are all here because they're pissed.
"That's just the way it is."
But it doesn't need to be. And anyone who came Sunday in search of a referendum on Connecticut's worthiness to share a record with a UCLA team transitioning from contemporary icon to historical legend as the years pass might as well have fought the hordes at FAO Schwarz.
The thing about mountaintops is they generally require a bit of work to reach, a reality that tends to cut down on the crowds. At this particular elevation, at the peak of college athletics, there is room for Auriemma's team to stretch out alongside Wooden's -- just as there is room for the Huskies to stand alongside Anson Dorrance's North Carolina women's soccer program and the 92 consecutive games the Tar Heels won between 1990 and 1999. And just as there is space alongside the Penn State women's volleyball program the day after the Lady Lions captured their fourth consecutive national championship under coach Russ Rose.
The one thing we have in common is that we settle for nothing less than the absolute best we can give you every single night, every single day. There's very few people that do that. [UCLA] did it, and we're doing it. Everything else, to me, is meaningless.” -- Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, on the only way to compare the Huskies' and Bruins' streaks
Connecticut's place in such company wasn't going to change no matter what happened Sunday. It's not going to change based on what happens Tuesday against No. 14 Florida State (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) or at whatever point the streak inevitably comes to an end. And instead of worrying about whether Connecticut measures up to UCLA, the question of more significance is what separates those teams and North Carolina and Penn State and a small handful of other programs in other sports from the thousands upon thousands of competitors who had their chance and fell short on the field.
"Both teams, I think, share just level of competitiveness, that expectation level that is above everyone else's," Maya Moore said of the Huskies and Bruins. "And the way they showed that was by going out and competing and winning every night. This program is just full of a lot of special people who are invested, put so much time and effort and passion into the game. We would just like people to remember how much we respect and love the game, and hopefully they can see that when we play."
That is what was on display Sunday. At its best, Connecticut can take apart an opponent with the precision of a scalpel-wielding surgeon. It also proved handy with the proverbial sledgehammer. There were parts of the performance against Ohio State that weren't perfect -- the Huskies missed more layups than they might in a normal two-week stretch, finished with more turnovers than assists for just the second time this season and occasionally looked like a team counting on three freshmen in its core, seven-player rotation.
|Maya Moore's Huskies have beaten 29 ranked opponents in their 88-game winning streak.|
But from the moment the ball went up, even after two early 3-pointers from Ohio State's Brittany Johnson raised eyebrows and hopes for a thriller on par with the battle between Baylor and Connecticut earlier this season, the Huskies played the game at a different speed.
The Huskies are tanks going up against a basketball world still counting on cavalry charges on horseback.
They frustrated Ohio State All-American center Jantel Lavender, using Stefanie Dolson's size and Samarie Walker's quickness to change up the looks Lavender saw. They perplexed Samantha Prahalis, Ohio State's other All-American, by throwing defensive stopper Kelly Faris at her, to the tune of 2-of-17 shooting and six turnovers from the Buckeyes point guard. And above all else, they pushed the ball down Ohio State's throats at each and every opportunity -- often right into the hands of Tiffany Hayes, who topped even Moore's 22 points with 26 of her own.
"That's the best way to play, when you have everybody on the team contribute what they're really good at," Moore said. "What's the point of playing a team sport if everybody's not going to be able to get involved and contribute and enjoy in it together?"
And as such, it's not Connecticut getting to win No. 88 or 89 that marks this team's greatness, certainly no more than getting to win No. 70 last spring and breaking its own record for the longest winning streak in Division I women's basketball. In the end, even 88 is just a number. What the Huskies did to get there is what matters, just as it mattered when the number was 57, 64 or 79.
"I've said that whether you agree or disagree with the time, the era, the competitive balance -- whatever your take on it is, you can put any spin you want on it and make it better, the same or less," Auriemma said. "It's just a matter of how you choose to look at it. One thing that's non-negotiable, and that is the one thing we have in common is that we settle for nothing less than the absolute best we can give you every single night, every single day. There's very few people that do that.
"[UCLA] did it, and we're doing it. Everything else, to me, is meaningless."
We can argue the merits of two teams and two sports, or we can celebrate both of them and those like them. At this time of year, in particular, it really ought to be an easy choice.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.