What pressure? UConn has fun in matching 90-game win streak

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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Only in the moments after Connecticut beat Ohio State in convincing fashion on Dec. 30, 2010, for its 88th win in a row, matching John Wooden's UCLA for what was then the longest winning streak in men's or women's NCAA basketball, did Geno Auriemma allow a show of emotion. He embraced loved ones. He spoke, with respect and a bit of relief, about an accomplishment a long time in the making.

He said that day in Madison Square Garden that he told his players they had to embrace the moment because "it may not come again."

Tuesday night, he sure looked like someone thoroughly enjoying being wrong about that.

Auriemma didn't wait until after his top-ranked team finished its 102-37 demolition of No. 20 South Florida to show emotion. He didn't wait for halftime. There he was in the first quarter with his arms raised in the air on one of his team's 3-point attempts. There he was applauding the right pass or a smart play. There he was grinning like the Cheshire Cat when the ball somehow traveled from Katie Lou Samuelson to Gabby Williams without regard for the laws of physics. He said his team left him speechless. The body language said plenty.

"We played like a team that was tonight, anyway, on a mission to do something that was really important to them," Auriemma said.

Still, it wasn't the emotion born of a 90th consecutive win, matching the record his program set those six years ago. It was the emotion of a team playing the game about as well as is possible.

"It was a really fun game to be a part of," junior guard Kia Nurse said. "I think it was the energy we came out with, the energy that we maintained throughout the game. Everybody was getting excited with the big plays we were making.

"When you play games like that, it's just pure fun and pure joy and excitement."

Well, not for South Florida. But, yes, sure.

That was what had Auriemma smiling even as it happened. But that is also why UConn will try to break its own record by winning its 91st game in a row this weekend (ESPN3, 3 p.m. Saturday). Because this team that should feel all the pressure in the world can have this much fun on this kind of night.

People are going to get this wrong. Those who didn't watch -- and look, a South Florida team supposedly among the 20 best in the country certainly didn't offer much reason to stay tuned in beyond the first 10 minutes -- will see the score and roll their eyes. More of the same. Someone with a platform that should be put to better use will probably explain why UConn is bad for the sport. We've done this before.

"I think the perception everywhere is, 'Well, of course, it's Connecticut, and the competition sucks,'" Auriemma said by way of preemptive objection. "So you hear all of it. It's OK. Those players in the locker room, they don't buy into any of that. They just know this is who we play, and we play better than most people most nights."

To write this off as more of the same, if not wrong by result, misses so much of the story. UConn lost Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck to the WNBA, three All-Americans and its three leading scorers. At least as far as its normal playing rotation, it added only freshman Crystal Dangerfield, who will miss what Auriemma termed "a couple of weeks" as a precautionary measure for a foot injury.

The four-time defending champion and the safest vote imaginable didn't end up ranked third in the preseason AP Top 25 because this was supposed to happen. No one mapped out the road to 91, because the streak wasn't supposed to get past Florida State. Or Baylor. Or Notre Dame. Or Ohio State. Or Maryland. Without a Stewart or Maya Moore or Diana Taurasi, Auriemma scheduled the streak's demise.

Or so it seemed.

"We knew what we were missing," said Saniya Chong, the rotation's lone senior, who matched a career high with 20 points (a career high set in the only game she has lost in four seasons). "We're not as big, and we're not as tall. It's a lot harder. We don't have that person in the back who can help us in blocked shots. We knew coming in it was going to be a whole different [dynamic]. We just had to get that connection. I think we're getting that connection pretty well."

There was ample statistical evidence. It wasn't until midway through the fourth quarter Tuesday that South Florida finally had more points than UConn had assists. But the Huskies were smiling too soon -- Samuelson grinning from ear to ear even before the ball was tipped -- for the joy to be the product of the play. The joy had to be the source.

"We're a lot of fun-loving people," Nurse said. "Coach might say we don't have personality, but we have great personalities. And when you go out and you make big plays, when you make and-ones like Gabby made off of Lou's crazy pass, those are just things that give you energy. It's exciting to see people be successful."

Nurse contended the team fed off a run of good practices leading up to Tuesday's game. Auriemma said Monday's practice was terrible. He suggested the team drives him up the wall, so far from the polished, almost professional product of a season ago. But it isn't entirely convincing.

UConn will lose at some point, although heaven forbid it not happen before next season, when Duke transfer Azura Stevens and a big freshman class arrives. The Huskies almost lost at Florida State and had to sweat out a nervous finish at Maryland this season. They still have to play South Carolina. The bench is short. The shooting could go cold. Rebounding remains a question mark. But it hasn't happened yet.

What this team is doing might cast aspersions on any progress made by the rest of the country in catching up to UConn. This team might also be the strongest testament to everything UConn is.

As the margin climbed into embarrassing territory during the later stages of Tuesday's game, Auriemma wore a stoic expression, no longer jubilant but merely businesslike. Yet there was one final moment, a spin dribble by Dangerfield that left her teammates on the bench holding each other back lest they stumble onto the court in their glee. As the crowd roared, the coach sat expressionless, leaning forward.

Then, small enough that it might have been nothing more than biting his lip, he appeared to grin.

Her own smile not hidden, associate coach Chris Dailey patted him on the back.

"Enjoy it because it might not come again" is good advice.

But no one needed to be told why to enjoy Tuesday. All involved were having plenty of fun.