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The Girls Got Game: UConn's Women's Basketball Break Through the Hardwood Ceiling

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 Unlike virtually every other state in the Union, Connecticut has no official descriptor like "Hawaiian," "Alaskan," "Californian," or "Nevadan." It is true that in 1702, the witch-burning, firebrand Boston cleric, Cotton Mather, referenced the "Connecticotians," and eighty-years later Governor Samuel Peters, called his fellow residents the even more impossible "Connecticutensians." "Connecticutter" never passed muster, nor has "Connectican."

 

The only nickname that came close to sticking was "Nutmegger," an impolite reference to the sharp-dealing Connecticut Yankee peddlers who would sell wooden plugs, to unsuspecting colonial housewives as the sought-after spice, nutmeg. With a tainted reputation, and the fact that Connecticut's best known Revolutionary War figure was traitor-supreme, Benedict Arnold, it was a good thing for the "Land of Steady Habits," as boosters insist on calling the State, to hide its light under a basket, or, in light of the remarkable performance of the University of Connecticut's athletic programs, a basketball.    

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With Tuesday's thrashing of Florida State, the University of Connecticut's women Huskies have racked up an 89-game winning streak that surpassed the awesome 1971-1974 UCLA Bruins for the longest string of wins in the history of major college basketball. By breaking what was one of basketballs most esteemed records, the women Huskies let the world in on Connecticut's dirty little no-longer-a-secret; that the State is the Vatican of American collegiate basketball exempting, perhaps Durham North Carolina, where Duke has a few of its own basketball triumphs.

This is personal, I admit. Many winter nights in the sixties were spend hiding under the covers, furtively listening on the transistor radio, to broadcasts of the Huskies Yankee Conference games, living and generally dying when the Huskies, even with some of the greatest players in the program's history, would be crushed by the Devils of Duke.

Since those days, Connecticut has had a lot to celebrate basketball-wise. In 2004, both UConn's men and women won their respective NCAA championship tournaments and today, not only are the women the most overpowering team in college basketball, but the men are currently ranked a respectable fourth in the national rankings. Few remain of those who thought that the Uconn Huskies were a team from Alaska or even worse, mistook them for the Washington State Huskies. No longer.

The UConn women have not been beaten since the 2008 NCAA Women's semi-finals against Stanford in April, 2008 and have since won two national titles, exacting their revenge on Tara VanDevere's Stanford Cardinal, and have gone undefeated since, winning most games by at least 20 points.

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The triumph of Connecticut basketball makes geographical sense. The game was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts, as the New England blackbird flies, forty-miles northwest of UConn's Storr's campus. The genius of Springfield College's Dr. James Naismith to nail up peach baskets at either end of a local YMCA gym was matched by the equally brilliant notion of cutting out the bottom of the basket to eliminate the need for an assistant with a ladder to retrieve the ball after each successful basket. Needless to say, early basketball games were low-scoring affairs. Driving through Springfield, in fact, it is impossible to miss the weird, giant geodesic dome that houses the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Connecticut was fertile ground for basketball. The Boston Celtics who would play a half-dozen games in Hartford each year, were regarded as the State's own. In the late "60s, when he retired from the Celtics, the matchless guard, K.C. Jones, became the player/coach for the semipro Hartford Capitols. Along with his Celtic and University of San Francisco NCAA championship teammate, Bill Russell, Jones became a welcome presence whose athleticism and personal magnetism helped New Englanders overcome what was in the "60s, a residual regional racism. Annual games between Hartford's Weaver High School and New Haven's Hillhouse High, two predominantly Black inner city schools, came to be regarded as the de facto State championship.  

In a similar way, the success of Gino Auriemma's women's basketball program has been responsible for helping overcome the ancient disregard for women's college athletics. Connecticut, located between Boston and New York, had a winner of its own, and if they happened to be girls, well, why not? Over the last decade UConn All-Star women like Rebecca Lobos, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi and others have become stars as well-known in the state as UConn's NBA contingent of players including Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Emeka Okefor.

Under the gifted, showy Auriemma, women' basketball has become the hottest ticket in the State and woe unto the broadcaster or journalist who did not treat the girl's game with all the respect accorded the men's game. Fans beyond Connecticut now take the game as seriously as it is played. No wooden nutmegs here; beginning in Connecticut and moving outward onto television screens across the nation, women's college basketball has taken its place at the major sport banquet table, if, for the foreseeable future, it follows several steps behind the women of UConn.

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Richard Rapaport is a Bay Area-based writer. Originally from New England, he understands the quiet Yankee ways, and thinks its time to make a little noise.

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