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The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team set a new record for consecutive wins Tuesday night in Hartford, beating Florida State 93-62. It was their 89th win in a row, dating back to the beginning of their 2007-2008 season, and including two national titles in back-to-back undefeated seasons. Their 89th consecutive victory broke the record previously held by the UCLA men’s basketball team, an 88-game winning streak which began in 1971 and ended in 1974, all under the tenure of legendary coach John Wooden. The reverence with which that streak has been treated is such that many have questioned whether the Lady Huskies’ streak should stand above it in the record books, or perhaps be asterisked or relegated to the title of longest women’s basketball winning streak. Such acts imply that women’s basketball is inferior to men’s, and that UConn’s accomplishment is therefore weaker. Such assertions are silly at best, deeply misogynist at worst.
Fans and analysts alike revel in comparison. The idea that every player on a team ever has worn the same uniform invites such comparison in an effort to contextualize a player’s accomplishment. Yes, Jon Lester is the best pitcher on the Red Sox right now. But how does he compare with Bill Lee? The relatively stable (barring occasional league expansion or contraction, or franchise movement) nature of sport invites even greater comparison, in an effort to determine not only where a player ranks in the history of his or her own team, but in the history of the sport itself. Fans want to be able to say they saw the greatest quarterback, the greatest pitcher or the greatest point guard to ever play the game. It’s a kind of bragging right that fans lust after and analysts try to satiate.
But if we look at UConn’s accomplishment from an outside perspective instead, we are left with a crucial question: why bother? Why do we need to say that UConn’s or UCLA’s streak is more impressive? Yes, the men’s basketball game is different from the women’s because of differences in the physical make-up and capabilities of athletic men and women. But just as there’s a difference between men’s and women’s basketball, there’s also a difference between 1970′s basketball and late 2000′s basketball. The game has evolved over time just as it has evolved to embrace women.
The competition UCLA faced was different as well. College basketball teams in the 70′s did not travel nearly as much, so their competition was far more localized to the West Coast. The UConn women, meanwhile, beat #22 Florida State, located over 1,200 miles south of Storrs, Connecticut, to set their record. Good teams are not bound by geography anymore, and they can seek out teams that they think will provide good competition and help them improve. But conversely, it does appear as if there’s a dearth of competitive college women’s basketball programs in this country, a stark contrast to the plethora of college men’s teams. This might explain why of all 89 Huskies victories, only two were by single digits.
Perhaps UConn beat easier teams along the way (although they beat four more top-10 teams during their streak than UCLA did), but winning 89 times in a row is not just about physical ability. It also takes concentration and mental stability, and those attributes exist completely independently of the gender or competitive level of the opponent. The Lady Huskies played 89 straight games without a mental lapse, and that is an accomplishment that goes beyond the chromosomal.
Whether or not UConn’s streak is better than UCLA’s, anyone who has watched the Huskies can come to only one conclusion: these women play beautiful basketball. Their offense is as smooth and fluid as any men’s team. Their passing is crisp, constantly moving the basketball from player to player until an open look is found. The players not touching the ball are in constant motion, preventing the defense from ever settling down. This in turn opens up lanes to the basket for lay-ups. If the defense cuts that off, the Huskies can shoot from anywhere on the court. They can shoot the 12-foot jumper from just outside the key. They can shoot the 18-footer. They can shoot the trey. Could a men’s team win 89 straight games with this offensive strategy? Maybe, maybe not. But they’d definitely win a lot of games. And if they executed their own offensive strategy with as much precision as the Huskies execute theirs, they’d win even more games.
The Huskies’ offensive strength is evident in their high-scoring victories. Any team that puts up 93 points at the collegiate level is definitely doing something right. But these Huskies are not content to just be gunners. Coach Geno Auriemma, easily one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, won’t let them. This is a team that puts as much effort into their defense as they do their offense, something that they could probably give up a little and still win a lot of games (just maybe not 89 in a row). They play their marks tight. They get steals. They transition and rotate. They hustle on turnovers. They block shots. They rebound. This is why their margins of victory are so high, and why some people question the validity of the streak. The Huskies aren’t just dominating on offense. They’re dominating on defense as well. To beat the Huskies, an opposing team would have to play 40 minutes of perfect basketball, and they’d still need to get lucky. The Huskies score a ton, then stop their opponents from scoring much at all. That’s why they keep slaughtering their opponents.
The beauty and balance of Huskies basketball could not be symbolized better than in the play of forward Maya Moore. In defeating FSU, Moore scored 41 points (a career high- nice to see a player seizing the moment presented to her), grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out three assists, stole the ball once and blocked three shots. Moore leads the team in points (total and per game), made field goals (total and per game), rebounds (offensive and defensive), assists, steals, and blocks (totals and per game for all three). Moore isn’t content to score and then rest. Every time she made a terrific play (using post-ups and crossover-dribbles that would impress even NBA players), you could see her sprinting back up the court to get on defense and encouraging her team to get a stop. Auriemma believes in playing every point like it’s a tie game, and Moore has bought into the philosophy. The intensity never diminishes, not for a second.
If fans enjoy ranking systems because it lets them say they saw the best player or rooted for the best team, fine. But then they should make sure they don’t miss out on this UConn squad. At some point, they’re going to lose a game. And when they do, the streak they’ve created will likely never be broken again. It’s almost impossible to go undefeated in a men’s basketball season even once (it last happened in 1976), let alone twice (necessary to break the streak). And there are so few uber-talented women’s squads that the likelihood that any team but perhaps Tennessee, Stanford or a future UConn squad could manage this is small. So whether or not you like women’s basketball, do yourself a favor: check out these Huskies. You’ll be glad you did.