It might be a burden, should be a joy and, Jamaal Wilkes says, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball players have his blessing if they beat Ohio State on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
But if they don’t, that’s OK too.
“Just say I’d like Coach Wooden to keep the record,” Wilkes said. “Not for me, for Coach Wooden.”
On Sunday, top-ranked Connecticut will play No. 11-ranked Ohio State at Madison Square Garden in New York. It will be a rare starring role for women’s college basketball, and it is all because Geno Auriemma’s Huskies are closing in on a UCLA record long revered as unmatchable.
A win Sunday would be Connecticut’s 88th in a row, tying an NCAA Division I record held by Wooden’s Bruins, whose streak began on Jan. 30, 1971, and ended on Jan. 19, 1974, courtesy of Notre Dame in South Bend. The Bruins, led by future Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, were up by 11 with just over three minutes to go but lost, 71-70.
“I still get sick when I think about that loss,” Wilkes said. “It just felt like we’d never lose.”
Auriemma, never one to avoid the spotlight or downplay achievements, doesn’t want to compare what his teams have done to UCLA’s dominance under Wooden.
“The best way for me to deal with this whole thing is to say that what those teams at UCLA did was go out and beat everybody they played, and after 88 games they lost,” he said by phone.
“We’ve gone out for 87 games, played everybody on the schedule and here we are at 87. Whether or not who they beat is better, whether or not they played more ranked teams, whether they played at home or away, all that stuff is irrelevant. The only thing that’s relevant is we did it our way against our competition; they did it their way against their competition. We each stand on our own merits, equally.”
Connecticut is led by All-American Maya Moore, who made eight of nine shots in the 86th victory to become the Huskies’ all-time scorer with 2,355, passing Tina Charles’ 2,346 set last season.
UCLA Coach Nikki Caldwell, whose women’s team on Sunday will try to extend its own eight-game winning streak, said comparing the Connecticut women’s and UCLA men’s streaks is unfair.
“Whenever you’re trying to compare the past with the present, for example Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison,” said Caldwell, who played for Tennessee and served as an assistant coach there under Pat Summitt, Auriemma’s archrival, before heading to Westwood. “It’s just not fair to compare the past and the present. It’s interesting to compare — but not fair.”
The man who guided that Notre Dame team is Digger Phelps, now an ESPN college basketball analyst.
“Apples and oranges,” he said of the streaks. “We see a lot of blowouts with Connecticut. I think the competition UCLA faced was a little better.”
The UCLA streak is one of sport’s most celebrated achievements, but it is the streak-ending game that Phelps remembers best. With 3:32 remaining, UCLA led 70-59. In those frantic final minutes, the Fighting Irish ran off 12 unanswered points, including the game-winning basket by guard Dwight Clay, a fall-away jumper with 29 seconds left.
“We were down 11, I called a timeout, made a few adjustments and we scored 12 straight,” Phelps said. “I read a book by Coach Wooden and in the book he said he’d never call a timeout in the last two minutes. I was thinking, ‘I read your book.’ We’re putting on the pressure, we’re making a run, lead gets to six, down to five, cut to three, Walton’s looking to Wooden. He ignores him. When Dwight Clay scored, he called time out.”
Wilkes said he felt almost ill at the buzzer. “We thought we’d never lose,” he said. “Not as long as we had Bill Walton.”
During Notre Dame’s run, UCLA had four turnovers and missed six consecutive shots — uncharacteristic of a Wooden-coached team. The Bruins had lost their poise for 3 1/2 minutes.
The loss also ended Walton’s own 139-game winning streak dating to his junior year in high school.
Pete Trgovich, who in the final seconds missed a tip-in, said the feeling of losing was “surreal,” and like many of those involved in one or the other of the streaks, said it isn’t fair to compare which achievement is greater.
“If UConn breaks the streak, and it seems like they will, it doesn’t take away from what we accomplished and, to be honest, I hope not too many people do the apples and oranges thing,” he said. “Let’s not take away from these girls. I hope the UConn girls are experiencing something really cool.”
Sue Bird, a seven-time WNBA All-Star who starred at Connecticut under Auriemma and led the Huskies to national titles in 2000 and 2002, is not opposed to comparisons.
“It’s basketball,” she said, “it’s the same sport. A lot of people say there is no competition in women’s basketball, but I don’t buy that.
“I don’t think anyone actually set out to do what they’ve done with the streak. It just kind of happens.”
Charles, who helped keep the streak going at Connecticut and is the reigning WNBA rookie of the year, said it’s silly to compare men to women, UCLA to UConn. It is not silly, however, to compare achievements.
“The games are different,” Charles said via e-mail from Russia, where she is playing during the WNBA off-season. “Heck, Coach Auriemma would tell us our generation is different from past Connecticut teams. But winning is the same.”
Marquette Coach Terri Mitchell, whose team was Connecticut’s 87th victim, considers the streaks equal. “Is it as good as the UCLA streak? Absolutely. Just think about the kind of schedule Geno plays. He’s not playing nonconference cupcakes. He’s beating ranked teams.”
Indeed, during the streak, which began on Nov. 15, 2008, Connecticut has beaten 16 teams ranked in the top 10 by an average of 23.5 points.
Wooden, who died in June at age 99, had applauded Connecticut’s winning streak when he spoke to the Wall Street Journal last year. Calling the streak “good for the game,” Wooden suggested that just as UCLA’s dominance helped make the men’s game stronger, the same could happen with Connecticut. “There’s some incentive for others to come up to Connecticut’s level,” he said.
Kara Lawson, an ESPN women’s basketball analyst and former Tennessee player who has played for Auriemma on the U.S. national team, said what UCLA accomplished won’t be forgotten. “If UConn passes UCLA, it would have won more games than anyone else and that’s a benchmark for others to chase,” she said. “Still, 88 will be a number people talk about, even if it’s broken.”
Some measure of Connecticut’s dominance since the streak began is in the numbers: an average victory margin of 33.3 points; total minutes trailing, 132 minutes 8 seconds. There have been plenty of blowouts, 12 of 50 points or more.
To be sure, there will be UCLA representation at the Garden on Sunday. Auriemma said he played golf last summer with UCLA great Gail Goodrich. “I told him if I won he’d have to come to the 88th straight if we got there,” Auriemma said. “I won. Gail will be there Sunday. If he wants to dress in UCLA gear, that’s fine.”
Hartford Courant staff writer John Altavilla contributed to this report.