Tonight, the UConn women's basketball team will attempt to extend its 86-game winning streak against No. 4 Maryland. The current record for longest winning streak is 90 games, set by ... UConn, of course, in 2010. Maryland is pretty much the final chance for an opponent to snap the Huskies' current streak before it reaches 90; UConn's next four games are against three unranked schools and No. 23 South Florida.
Someone, somewhere, will eventually break UConn's current streak, whether it becomes a new record or not. Yet after talking to two players and the coach of the school that finally beat UConn on Game 91 six years ago, I was surprised to discover that for whoever stops the Huskies, the victory probably won't bring a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
In fact—depending on which opponent pulls it off—ending the streak might not mean a whole lot at all.
Almost six years ago to the day, UConn travelled to Palo Alto for a late December rematch of the 2010 NCAA championship game against Stanford. The Cardinal led that game at halftime, but couldn't hold on and lost 53-47.
Over the 2010 winter break, nobody on Stanford talked about UConn's streak. Instead, Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer had her No. 9-ranked team break down film and focus on their game plan. Moreover, Stanford had its own streak going: 51 straight wins at home. No matter which school won, a remarkable run was going to end that night.
"At least for me, I honestly wasn't thinking about the [UConn] streak," then-senior Jeanette Pohlen—now on the Indiana Fever—told me over Skype from Japan, where her husband plays basketball professionally. "You might think I'm lying or crazy, but I really wasn't. I think Tara always had us just take each game, one game at a time, and not look at all the other things surrounding it."
The plan, drilled into the players and rehearsed in minute detail, was hardly a secret: shut down then-UConn senior Maya Moore, who averaged 19.7 points per game during her college career. But that season, Stanford had the players to execute that game plan, as 6-foot-3 freshman Chiney Ogwumike added much needed height to the Cardinal's roster. Meanwhile, UConn had lost five seniors from their title team, including superstar Tina Charles. The Huskies were younger and less experienced, heavily reliant on Moore for their offensive production.
In general, this wasn't exactly a bad thing—Moore was one of the best college basketball players ever, and has equaled her success on the pro level—but it presented Stanford with an opportunity.
"We could match up with them size-wise," VanDerveer recalled over the phone recently. "We could switch onto Maya Moore. I think that was a key for us, switch a lot on screens and not give her open looks."
"One thing I specifically remember is to just, you know, be physical with [Moore]," Pohlen recalled of the game plan. "Don't give her anything easy. If someone else has to switch on her, same thing. Be physical with her, make sure she's not getting what she wants."
Although Stanford did their best to ignore the stakes, the significance of the moment hit the Cardinal the second they walked into the Maples Pavilion. VanDerveer, who has held the Stanford job since 1985, has coached a lot of games in that gym, and usually, there are "a couple of people" there for warmups. But not that night. The arena, which fits about 7,300, was completely packed.
"Honestly, what I felt like," VanDerveer recalled, "they want blood."
Stanford didn't disappoint. When I asked Pohlen when she knew the game plan was working, she replied, "Honestly? From the get-go. I felt like we were being aggressive, we weren't afraid of them, we weren't being timid, and we were clicking on all cylinders."
Her memory is confirmed by the scoreboard. Stanford rushed out to a 15-4 lead and never trailed. Moore didn't score for the first 17 minutes.
Although Ogwumike had the primary responsibility for guarding Moore, Stanford heavily rotated with her sister Nneka, Kayla Pedersen, and JoslynTinkle. "We were like glue," Tinkle said. "We didn't let her out of our sight."
Almost immediately, Tinkle knew the plan was working. She remembers Moore being "really frustrated." Moore shot 5-15 from the field and scored 14 points; she had been averaging 24.8 points per game. Tinkle remembers the rest of the Huskies being equally ineffectual, which she chalks up largely to their preparation. "We knew their plays as they would call them," she says.
Meanwhile, on offense, Pohlen was an absolute monster, scoring 31 points and adding six assists. Still sounding like the team's senior leader all these years later, she refuses to take credit for being the standout performer, lauding others like Kayla Pedersen, a 6-foot-4 guard, for creating mismatches both against UConn and throughout the season.
Even though UConn had moments where it looked like they might go on a run, the game wasn't particularly close. Stanford comfortably closed out the 71-59 victory, handing UConn their first loss in 998 days. Maples Pavilion exploded, Tinkle leapt into teammate's Mikaela Ruef's arms, who tried to simultaneously leap into hers. Neither of them caught the other, so they fell to the floor. Pedersen did the post-game interview with ESPN when, through tears, she said the team was "elated," a word choice her teammates good-naturedly ribbed her for later.
But not everyone was elated. VanDerveer, with hardly a smile on her face, shook UConn coach Geno Auriemma's hand and "did the press conference thing," as she put it, adding "it wasn't anything special." Because she doesn't drink, she didn't even have a celebratory beer.
I found this stoic characterization hard to believe. Did breaking the longest winning streak in basketball history really mean nothing to her? After ten minutes of prodding VanDerveer about this, she seemed to grow a little frustrated, albeit with extreme politeness. "I want to make sure you understand," she said with a good-natured sense of assurance. "What they did was special. Winning 90 games is special. That's incredible. What we did was, we played a very good game on one night. To win 90 games is being consistent. We didn't win 90 games. They did."
In a testament to this sentiment—and of UConn's otherworldly excellence—it took VanDerveer and me a couple of minutes to get on the same page at the start of our conversation; it was only after I asked two questions that we realized we weren't even talking about the same record-setting UConn winning streak.
While the Stanford players I spoke to derived much more joy from the victory than their former coach, neither celebrated too heartily that evening. Today, they seemed to mostly put it in the Nice Memory category—a fun win to to be a part of, but not a whole lot more. Tinkle's family had been in town for her 20th birthday, which happened to be that day. After the game, her mother and grandmother took her to a local Italian restaurant. A bunch of fans were also there, and gave her a standing ovation when she entered.
I asked Tinkle, who now lives in Oregon and works for a wine distributor, if she still thinks about the game. She admitted that she does, but that it's not the dominant memory of her college career: "I more think about all the times we lost to them, to be honest."
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