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This UConn women’s basketball team is a game-changer

The road to Storrs runs through small towns and stretches of wooded countryside where the trees are still mostly bare. On a drizzly afternoon with few cars around, it is hard to imagine that day in 1995 when the people of Connecticut lined this route for miles on end, waving flags, cheering as their college basketball team came home with a championship trophy.

Their women’s college basketball team.

“From the airport all the way to campus,” recalled Geno Auriemma, the women’s coach at the University of Connecticut. “The TV people were tracking us as we’re going -- it was like the O.J. Simpson chase.”

The Huskies have captured five more NCAA titles since then and are riding a two-year winning streak, trampling opponents by an average of 35 points a game. That makes them, arguably, the most dominant team in any American sport.

No one gets too famous in women’s basketball -- their version of March Madness takes a back seat to the men’s -- but the Huskies have barged into the national spotlight and, closer to home, have attracted a passionate following with help from an unlikely source.

“There are a lot of older women who watch, and families with young children,” said Harriet Unger, an executive producer for Connecticut Public Television, which broadcasts or streams every game. “A lot of retirees too. Everyone calls the team ‘their girls.’ ”

On Tuesday, the Huskies face Florida State in a regional final of the NCAA Tournament, just three wins shy of another title. They are nearing a hallowed record: The 88 straight victories the UCLA men achieved under Coach John Wooden.

“It’s kind of surreal,” sophomore guard Tiffany Hayes said. “They say that you win some, you lose some. . . . but we keep winning.”

The UConn campus, a collection of stately brick buildings set around two large ponds, is just 30 miles from Hartford but feels more remote than that.

Auriemma arrived as a little-known assistant in 1985. Back then, the University of Tennessee and Coach Pat Summitt ruled the women’s game, but Auriemma had a plan to change all that.

“I’m not here to coach girls’ basketball,” he told the team. “You’re not going to play like girls. . . . you’re going to play like basketball players.”

The new guy established a merciless routine, his athletes practicing the same pick-and-roll, the same defensive switch over and over. Starters had to play short-handed in scrimmages, matching up four against six.

“The situations we’re put in seem impossible,” current center Tina Charles said. “When we get into games, it’s five-on-five and it’s easy.”

The word “perfection” gets used a lot around UConn, but not in terms of wins and losses. The Huskies think smaller. They are meticulous about each offensive possession; on defense, they’re intent on stopping their opponent every time down the floor.

The team likes to quote football coach Vince Lombardi: “If we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

It helps that Auriemma recruits All-Americans such as Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. His program eventually caught up with Tennessee and, in this decade, has pulled ahead, five championships to two.

“I did not think anyone could take that away from Pat Summitt,” said Billy Packer, a television analyst who has kept close tabs on both the men’s and women’s games in a career that has spanned four decades. “Right now, there are probably 10 teams in the country that can play a competitive half against UConn.”

Charles and forward Maya Moore, last season’s college player of the year, lead a squad whose closest call was a 12-point victory over second-ranked Stanford.

Though the Huskies’ 75-game streak includes no matchups against Tennessee -- the coaches have butted heads over recruiting and won’t schedule games against each other -- UConn blew past more than a dozen Top 25 opponents this season.

“Every time they shot the ball, it seemed like it was going in,” said Temple guard Qwedia Wallace after her team lost to the Huskies, 90-36, in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “It is a little disheartening.”

But jump shots and rebounds are only part of the UConn story.

Connecticut has no major professional sports teams, not since the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League moved away. So the UConn women filled a void, and they came along at just the right time.

That first championship season -- 1994-95 -- coincided with a lockout of NHL players by team owners. The local sports pages and newscasts were left looking for something to report.

As the team drew attention, a state legislator approached Connecticut Public Television about carrying a few games. Station executives -- including Larry Rifkin, the man responsible for taking the purple dinosaur “Barney” nationwide -- agreed to a test run.

“We took a gamble,” said Unger, who was assigned to the broadcasts. “There was such tremendous response that we said, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good thing.’ ”

CPTV soon expanded to a full schedule, and ratings have been so strong the station paid $1 million to renew its rights. A recent Huskies game fell just a few rating points shy of NBC’s Vancouver Olympics coverage in Connecticut that day.

“That’s an incredible amount of exposure,” Packer said. “It’s like no other university that I know of.”

Auriemma has taken full advantage.

Brash and talkative, he is the kind of coach who continues joking with reporters even after team officials whisper in his ear that practice has begun without him.

He takes particular glee in needling his rival, Summitt, keeping their feud alive by referring to her age and calling her program “The Evil Empire.”

His players know they are expected to help him promote the sport and the team, always cordial, making time for reporters and fans.

“We’re a small community, so we get to know people,” said Betsy Paterson, the mayor of Mansfield, a town that encompasses the village of Storrs. “The players are such a clean-cut group of women.”

But there’s a twist: UConn students -- like those on most campuses -- still favor the men’s program.

When the women defeated Temple last week, a campus hangout called Huskies -- which bills itself as “Home of the UConn Huskies” -- closed early. A nearby bar had its televisions tuned to other sports.

Asked about the women’s game, a bartender replied: “Are they playing right now?”

Earlier this season, during a walk-through, one of the UConn players cut through the lane holding up the wrong hand to call for a pass. The coaches went ballistic.

“You’d have thought she violated a cardinal rule,” recalled Doris Burke, a former college player who now works as an ESPN commentator. “If you want to know why Connecticut is so good, that’s why.”

Are the Huskies good enough to be considered America’s most dominant team? “They’re making a case for consideration,” Burke said.

But their success raises another question: Are all those blowout victories hurting a women’s game that must fight for respect and attention?

Even Packer, who admires their style, concedes: “To be quite honest with you, because so many of the teams they play have no opportunity to be competitive, I don’t watch many of their games.”

Auriemma offers a different perspective. He talks about Microsoft’s dominance of the computer software market.

“Eventually, other people have to catch up,” he says. “You either compete or get out, so everyone will compete.”

The UConn coaches and players like to think their program has excelled because, to them, it’s about more than winning. They’re chasing perfection.

“We love the game, we value the game,” Moore said. “We show that every day in how hard we work.”

And she thinks people appreciate their effort.

The sort of people who watch basketball on public television. The sort of people who would pull their cars to the side of the road and cheer for a passing bus.

david.wharton @latimes.com

twitter.com/ LATimesWharton


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