THIS YEAR'SHuskies may not be the most talented or experienced group Geno Auriemma hasever coached at Connecticut, but they do have a special gift: They make himlaugh. "They say and do the dumbest stuff," he says. "Kids willforget to bring sneakers to a game or will come with one sneaker! It's goofystuff that keeps everyone having fun and not taking it like it's the end of theworld if we don't play well. And that's the way it can be around here: If youdon't go to the Final Four, if you don't win a national championship, it wasn'tthat great a year."
By those standardsthe last few years in Storrs have been grim, indeed. After five straight FinalFour appearances--four of which produced national titles--UConn missed the lasttwo, falling in the Sweet 16 in 2005 and the Elite Eight in '06. But this team,which has no seniors or All-Americas, may be the one that gets the earthspinning in the right direction again. After losing close games to fellow No. 1seeds Tennessee and North Carolina in the first half of January (Duke is theonly top seed they haven't faced), the Huskies won 15 straight before falling55--47 to Rutgers in the Big East tournament final. "That loss was areminder that we can't do anything alone," says 6'1" junior forwardCharde Houston. "We have to play as a team. We don't have anybody who canscore 40 a night."
What UConn doeshave is scoring balance--all five starters average double figures--and aninside game it hasn't had since seniors Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and AsjhaJones ruled the paint in 2002. Freshman Tina Charles, a 6'4" center who waslast year's national high school player of the year, averages 12.7 points and8.6 rebounds (including 3.3 offensive boards). "Tina has changed the wayour team plays," says Auriemma, "because now we have someone we canthrow the ball in to, who can score against anybody in the country."
The Huskies alsoare benefiting from a more consistent performance by Houston, the top scorer inCalifornia high school history, who arrived in Storrs 21/2 years ago billed asthe program's next superstar. Quick, strong and mobile--"a terrible matchupfor most teams," says Auriemma--Houston has at times driven her coach nutswith her inconsistency. "Sometimes Charde would not do enough to help us,and then other times she would try to win the games single-handedly," saysAuriemma. Houston had some strong performances early on, but when she gave uptwo offensive rebounds in the first four minutes of the Jan. 30 game againstCincinnati, Auriemma benched her and pulled her out of the starting lineupagainst Marquette on Feb. 3. "That had a huge impact on me," she says."I realized I was letting my team down."
Since then Houstonhas scored in double digits in 10 straight games. "In the Big Easttournament she played great basketball, in every sense of the word," saysAuriemma. "I think going into the NCAA tournament, she's going to be reallygood and we're going to be really good." In fact, he adds, "we couldend up being the dumbest team ever to win the national championship."
BACK IN BUSINESS After being benched, Houston (24) regained her focus, scoring in double digits in 10 consecutive games.