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Group effort all the way for UConn

No. 1 lesson? They play well together

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / March 16, 2010

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HARTFORD — After the Connecticut women’s basketball team secured its 72d consecutive victory and another Big East tournament title, coach Geno Auriemma declared he was off to spend a couple of days recruiting.

The break between the tournament and yesterday’s selection show gave Auriemma and other coaches a chance to peek at the next batch of talent. But when you’re representing UConn, owner of six national titles and the longest winning streak in women’s basketball history, how difficult can recruiting be?

“You’d be surprised how it’s not that easy to recruit kids as people would think,’’ Auriemma said. “People think you walk in and say, ‘I’ll take this kid and this kid,’ but it doesn’t work like that. What happens in recruiting now is that for every kid that says, ‘Coach Auriemma is coming to my house, I’m going there,’ there’s a kid that says, ‘Man, they have too many good players, I’m not going there.’ ’’

“You would think that it’s really easy, but it’s not.’’

Under Auriemma, the Huskies have won 85 percent of their games in 25 seasons. He has coached Olympians, and 23 first-team All-Americans. They will enter the NCAA Tournament this weekend as the overall No. 1 seed, and carry a history that includes 10 Final Four appearances. Auriemma knows what type of player he needs and said that remains the key to any team’s success.

“There are only 10 kids in the country that you even want to talk to,’’ Auriemma said. “And now you’ve got to hope they all feel like this one and say, ‘Wow, I get a chance to go to Connecticut. Who can turn that down?’ But there’s half of them or more that say I’m not going there. I’m going somewhere I can play minutes. It’s about us finding the right fit for the ones that have the mind-set to play here.’’

UConn senior guard Kalana Greene received a handwritten letter from Auriemma the summer of her junior year. A South Carolina native, Greene grew to appreciate programs such as Georgia and North Carolina. When she opened the letter she remembered thinking, ‘This is that team that wins all those championships.’ ’’

But a perceived paved road to championships wasn’t enough for Greene.

“They were kind of like a team I didn’t really like because you can’t just jump on the bandwagon,’’ Greene said.

The more Greene learned about UConn, the more she became interested. Greene said Auriemma didn’t promise her playing time or her name in lights; he promised he would make her better.

“You realize there’s a reason why they’re winning, and if you want to be a part of that, he can help you win. I’m happy I came here,’’ she said. “He made the best out of me. I don’t think I would be the player I am today if I didn’t come here.’’

Greene is one of two seniors in the Huskies starting lineup and was the Big East tournament’s most outstanding player last week. Senior center Tina Charles and junior forward Maya Moore are considered among the best players in the country. Charles is UConn’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder and ranks third in blocks. Moore reached 2,000 career points quicker than anyone in UConn history and displays athleticism that frustrates opponents around the basket.

The Huskies are a team that can score at will, but focuses on defense. To convince a team of scorers that defense is more important requires a different approach, Moore said. UConn has held opponents to fewer than 50 percent shooting in 223 consecutive games.

“You’ve got to recruit a certain type of player,’’ Moore said. “You recruit players that are competitive people, so when you get to Connecticut, everything is competitive, offense and defense. And I think it’s something that we have bought into.’’

Being competitive also means being disciplined. Instead of worrying about the score, UConn concentrates on possessions. With large leads, the Huskies can work on individual plays. Former college coach Nancy Darsch, now an assistant with the Seattle Storm, said keeping a team motivated in the midst of such success might be the biggest challenge.

“I think it speaks volumes to their program and to their recruiting,’’ she said. “I think you look at the players at UConn and they’re improving and showing different skills every year. The players are being challenged and that’s a credit to their coaches, but I also think it’s just the way that program has been built. The players are held to a higher standard and they’re pushed and pushed.’’

The mentality has been there for previous UConn teams but the winning streak is setting this group apart. The 2001-02 team that started a winning streak that hit 70 games in 2003 had the best player at every position, Auriemma said. But this season’s team, he added, is not only talented but plays well as a group.

“In 2002, I expected it to happen that one season,’’ he said. “I didn’t expect the following season because I knew how hard it would be.

“This group has something in them, maybe it comes from what we do every day in practice, maybe it comes from the way they approach everything, but there’s something in them and you know what if the rest of the world wants to think, ‘Well they’re just better than everybody else,’ that’s fine. I love that.’’

The Huskies have beaten every team during the streak by double digits. They have dominated national statistics from scoring defense to field goal percentage. With such dominance, parity in women’s basketball comes into question. But Boston College coach Sylvia Crawley said although UConn’s streak is impressive, the gap is closing.

“I think you’re going to see it start to get close,’’ Crawley said. “It’s happening with the other teams. Connecticut can’t get every player. Someone’s got to want to compete against Connecticut. Somewhere along the line that’s going to be appealing to a young lady who is looking to create her own footprint.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.