Charles ready to rise to occasion

ST. LOUIS -- If you want to know how much better, tougher and more of a pain to guard Tina Charles has become, just ask the person who has to deal with it as much as anybody.

Fellow Connecticut junior Kaili McLaren battles Charles in practice all the time. She has seen how Charles has figured out how to meet the demands of coach Geno Auriemma and elevate herself into an All-American.

"It's just a different mindset, coming out knowing she can't be stopped on that court," McLaren said. "She knows what she's capable of doing.

"Especially when you're dealing with somebody like [Auriemma], it's easy to get frazzled and get taken out of your element. But he builds you to be mentally tough. And you can tell the difference in a player who's not all together and one who knows what they have to do."

In the national semifinals, Charles will face fellow 6-foot-4 center Jayne Appel of Stanford. The two have gone against each other in the nation's summer circuit for years.

"We've battled on the court, and we're great friends off the court," Appel said. "I think we are trying to constantly improve our games and women's basketball at the same time."

In the pantheon of UConn post players of the past decade, Charles' personality is a bit more in the Asjha Jones mold (kind of quiet) than the Tamika Williams or Swin Cash mold (plenty to say).

UConn writers who regularly cover the team will tell you that Charles typically has been pretty careful with her words. But especially so after a frustrated Auriemma once told her that he was tired of hearing her say things that she then didn't back up with her play.

His intent wasn't to get her to clam up -- Auriemma never has minded having players with colorful personalities -- but rather to spur her to play more confidently. Well, it worked in terms of how good a player Charles has become. And if her quotes sometimes seem too bland for a player of such stature, that's OK.

She's more than willing to say Auriemma has done right by her in pushing her the way he has.

"It just shows that his way works," Charles said after being named one of 10 State Farm All-Americans on Saturday. "If you stick with it, if you trust it."

Auriemma says that most players do need their coaches to keep the fire lit to some extent.

"I've seen Tina in high school," he said. "I've seen her in AAU. I've seen her in college do some things that lead you to believe that somewhere inside there, there's the potential to become the best player in the country.

"But Tina may not see that. And as long as Tina doesn't see that herself, then it was a struggle. Has the light gone on? Yeah, I'm sure it has. But in coaching, you always gotta have your hand ready to put it on the [light] switch, because it could go out at any time."

Associate head coach Chris Dailey is as motivational with Charles in her own way as Auriemma is. She thinks that the ever-elusive "focus" was what Charles sometimes was lacking.

"It was probably more her mental approach than it ever was physical," Dailey said. "Understanding how hard you have to go every possession in order to have the kind of success she wants to have.

"It's just a longer process with post players. The other thing with Tina is, we had a need and an expectation for her as a freshman. Well, expectation is one thing, but really needing her in order to win, that's a different kind of pressure for a freshman. Generally when you come into a program like ours as a freshman, you have a couple of people ahead of you and you have some time to develop. But we needed Tina to be really good right away."

And understand that it's not at all as if Charles was some kind of flop her first two seasons. To the contrary, she averaged 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds as a rookie and 14.2 and 9.2 last season. She was Big East freshman of the year in 2007 and made the league's first team as a sophomore.

But neither year was she satisfied with her play in the Huskies' NCAA tournament losses, and that bugged her. Further, she came to realize that Auriemma wasn't saying she was a bad player. He was saying she was a good one who could be great.

This season, Charles is averaging 16.5 points and 8.6 rebounds. She's shooting 61.4 percent from the field. Defensively, she has become even more intimidating.

"I just think that everybody has a challenge in their life," Charles said. "And you accept it and start working hard, or you don't. My choice was, because I love this game, I wanted to accept it."

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