If there was a pivotal moment in Connecticut’s surge to a height only a WNBA team could knock them from, it was the 2001 championship run. Mainly, Storm star Sue Bird’s coast-to-coast layin at the buzzer to defeat Notre Dame in the Big East Final — a first over the Irish for the Huskies.
Call it that first sprout in the “yes-our-grass-is-greener-than-yours” field on which Connecticut now plays. Nearly a decade later, UConn carries a 74-game win streak into the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 this weekend.
You’ll soon be able to read more about Bird (pictured right) and the historic game that became ESPN’s first women’s instant classic in an upcoming book aptly titled “Bird at the Buzzer.” Written by Jeff Goldberg, a former Hartford Courant Huskies beat reporter from 2001-2006, its scheduled release-date is the anniversary of the game in Spring 2011.
In all of this UConn hysteria, I often wonder where it started. Obviously with coach Geno Auriemma, whose opinionated voice is as needed in the women’s game as his artistry with a clipboard. But this kind of dominance isn’t just in his coaching, recruiting of Maya Moore or what mark Rebecca Lobo left behind. I often look at Bird’s squads — the ones Auriemma said could beat the 2009-2010 team — as an injection of the confidence and titanium-plated tradition of winning the program needed to be so flip dog good.
Yet, I also wonder if the adverse effect, the ho-hum attitude toward the rest of NCAA women’s hoops, isn’t because of Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash and crew’s achievements.
A real hoops fan knows that while this tournament may be the race to second place, there’s still plenty of excitement and madness going on. People talk about not having parity in the women’s game, but how do they explain three teams making their first trip to the Sweet 16? Last year there was only one in California.
And, ahem, San Diego State, which last advanced in 1985, is a No. 11 seed.
I look at the numbers, including how close some opening round matches were at halftime, and think the women’s game is right on pace with the men. Thankfully with less polyester and platform shoes going around, however.
UConn will probably go undefeated and in December against Pacific and Stanford it’ll probably pass the dominate 1970s UCLA men’s teams for most consecutive wins in college hoops history (88). Then they’ll lose, kicking off a new era. Because, gee, that’s what happened in the men’s game, which is better off now because of it – more television coverage, tournaments played, teams advancing to postseason competition, etc.
(As a side note, I jokingly asked UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell if the Bruins would reschedule their season to host UConn at Pauley Pavilion for the historic possibility of passing the men’s 88 wins and she laughed. “There are still more ballgames that have to be played, but I definitely wouldn’t want to assist them in doing so,” she said.)
So, why not enjoy the moment of the women’s growth instead of acting like its a bore to watch the best college players execute the game to near perfection?
This season’s Huskies proved there are heights beyond Bird’s teams. Why can’t Baylor freshman Brittney Griner be a sign there’s something beyond Moore and Tina Charles, who’ll be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft?
It’s like whining about Michael Jordan shredding the NBA. At some point you have to give respect and know it won’t last forever. Bird may have burst the door open for her school to play on seemingly unreachable level, but others will find the path to the Huskies’ plateau.
Bird would say it’s “Murphy’s Law.” She should know, she helped establish it.
“Teams that become consistent winners and play at a certain level, fans love that, respect it,” Auriemma told The New York Times. “I don’t care whether it is the Yankees, the Patriots, us, whoever. To dismiss that is demeaning.”