For the past three weeks or so, I’ve been holed up trying to edit more than 20 years of photographs of the UConn women’s basketball team for a book on the 10 NCAA Championships they’ve won. A daunting task in many ways since we were limited to about 10-12 pages per chapter. Daunting, too, given the reality of how technology has changed from their first victory against Tennessee in 1995, when our photographers were still shooting film, to this year when Cloe Poisson and Michael McAndrews covered them during each round digitally shooting both stills and video to try to satisfy the enormous appetite of our readers online, in print and through social media.
My how times have changed.
To view more photos and history of the UConn women’s basketball team click the View More link:
Passages from the Hartford Courant’s book,“Dynasty: UConn Women’s Ten-Title Season”, were used in each chapter here were written by John Altavilla, Hartford Courant UConn women’s basketball beat reporter.
To purchase the book go to this pre-order page:
One of the first challenges we faced was finding images from the 1995 season. We published our first book that year but finding the images, which were shot on film, in our archive system was problematic to say the least. All the negatives that were stored in our photo studio at the Courant were moved to one of our warehouse facilities, unfortunately the boxes containing these photos were not to be found. Part of the problem is that most of the staff that were a part of that season and project are no longer employed here and the chain of custody of the images was scattered between locations. I’m sure the photos are somewhere, we’re just not sure where. That limited our choice of images for the first chapter to images we were able to find in or digital archive system called Merlin. We had to have an outside vendor scan the negatives we did find of some behind the scene situations since we don’t have equipment to do that anymore.
Chapter One – The Start Of Something Big
Ten years into a job he originally figured wouldn’t last more than four, Geno Auriemma approached the 1994-95 season knowing that the window of opportunity to win his first national championship — the window he had stared through since losing to Virginia in the 1991 national semifinals — was closing fast.
We did find some negatives that gave a behind the scenes look at student athletes.
Images like this one of Jennifer Rizzotti wearing her trademark knee pads inspired many young ladies to take up the game of basketball.
One of the things I really enjoyed was seeing the public’s access to the athletes, which gets more difficult each year. When the parade was held in 1995 the players were seated in convertibles and fans were allowed to get fairly close to them along the parade route. Now the standard mode of transportation is the double decker bus. In today’s world of a controlled environment and security concerns for the athletes I guess I just long for a bygone era that is reflected in the two decades of coverage.
Chapter Two – Dominance Begins
The era from 1996-1999 was a comparative dark age for a program that would eventually become the brand name of its sport.
After losing in the national semifinals to Tennessee in 1996, the Huskies spent the next three seasons faltering in big spots, twice in the Elite Eight and then in the Sweet 16.
So before the 1999-2000 season began, coach Geno Auriemma and his players needed to take a deep breath.
“In the 2000 title game, it was Kelly Schumacher, who best justified the confidence her coach showed in her. She blocked nine shots. She set an aggressive offensive tone from the start.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said after the 71-52 defeat, “The blocked shots definitely broke our spirit.” John Altavilla / The Hartford Courant
Among the numerous players who embodied the UConn toughness that Geno Auriemma recruited, Shea Ralph stands out as one of the toughest for her ability to overcome season-ending knee injuries. She now is one of his trusted assistant coaches.
Chapter Three – The Stars Come Out
There never was a barometer” for greatness, Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster said. “Now there is: The WNBA. UConn is playing with five first-round draft choices. I don’t think there’s ever been a men’s or women’s team that can make that statement.”
One week later, Bird (1), Cash (2), Jones (4) and Williams (6) were gobbled up by WNBA teams in the first round, leaving Taurasi behind to make more history.
She soon would.
Jay L. Clendenin used a camera mounted over the basket and triggered it remotely from one of his camera bodies courtside.
Taurasi’s leadership and intensity would help propel UConn to their first three-peat.
Chapter 4 – New Cast, Worthy Encore
At UConn, the dread of its fan base was palpable when four of its greatest players graduated simultaneously following the 2002 national championship. Doubt reverberated like a cellphone shrilling in a quiet chapel: “How could life possibly go on without Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams to lead us?”
But that summer of 2002 likely was when the fundamental nature of what UConn had become kicked in. This program was no longer a one- or two-year wonder. The Huskies were being built to last through an ever-expanding geographical recruiting base that began with Shea Ralph (North Carolina), Stacy Hansmeyer (Oklahoma) and Paige Sauer (Nevada) in the late 1990s.
Strother was one of three freshman All-Americans added to bolster the roster that included Diana Taurasi.
The following year Taurasi punted the ball into the rafters after…well, you’ll have to read Chapter 5…
Chapter Five – Dynamo
From the moment Geno Auriemma first saw Diana Taurasi on a basketball court, it was clear this charismatic dynamo defied simple description.
Half-Italian, half-Argentine, the kid from Chino, Calif., was a chemical reaction, talent bubbling over the top of the beaker. But it wasn’t just her ability, although it’s not every day that a kid scores 3,047 points in high school. It was her attitude: confident, spontaneous, fearless. Not only was she a step ahead of the field, she also was a one-liner ahead.
Taurasi could have gone to UCLA to play close to home. But enamored by Auriemma’s straight talk — she hated having smoke blown up her ass — she chose UConn, embracing the enormous challenges he placed at her feet over the comfort and safety of a more familiar future.
“I probably wouldn’t get a ring somewhere else,” Taurasi said. “Anyone who is a player and loves basketball wants to win. And to win a national championship, that’s worth more than any points that you can score.
Diana Taurasi reacts at a 1st half timeout with Ashley Battle as UConn started a run against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the National Semifinals at New Orleans Arena.
2003-04, the last lap for Taurasi, Maria Conlon and Morgan Valley, did not go as smoothly as the year before.
On Feb. 28, the Huskies lost to Villanova, the team that had ended their 70-game winning streak the season before in the Big East Tournament championship game. This time Israeli guard Liad Suez, who scored 21 of her 23 points in the second half, scored four in the final minute to seal a 59-56 win, spoiling the day Taurasi became the fifth UConn player to reach 2,000 points. Barbara Turner tries to rip the ball from Suez’s grip as they battle for control during the second half.
Diana Taurasi scored 17 points in 37 minutes in a 70-61 victory against Pat Summitt and Tennessee, taking the women to their third straight national championship. It was the last time the two powerhouses would face one another for a national championship and on June 8, 2007, it was announced the schools would discontinue their regular-season series.
Chapter Six – Return To Splendor
By the time Diana Taurasi got to Phoenix and the WNBA in the spring of 2004, aficionados of women’s basketball, not to mention White House date-planners, had come to expect certain things from UConn.
From 1995 to 2004, the Huskies played in seven Final Fours and won each of the five national championship games they played, including three in a row from 2002 to 2004. To some this constituted a trend, to others the birth of the sport’s new monarchy.
Tiffany Hayes, Tina Charles and Maya Moore (l-r) react to a teammate’s shot in the final seconds of the Big East final against Louisville at the XL Center, UConn won 75-36.
When #1 UConn pulled into Chapel Hill the to play #2 North Carolina, Tar Heel student section had a message for the Huskies “YoUConNotWin” but…
…Renee Montgomery and the Huskies took care of business in a crushing 86-56 victory at Chapel Hill.
I used a remote camera on the basket stanchion to capture the atmosphere at the Dean Center in Chapel Hill, NC.
UConn completed the regular season 30-0 and cruised to a Big East Tournament title with a resounding 39-point win over upstart Louisville and Angel McCoughtry, the Big East player of the year in 2007. When Moore left the game with less than nine minutes to play, she had 28 points, the Cardinals just 27.
The NCAA Tournament simply was a coronation — a reaffirmation, really — featuring six lopsided wins that concluded with a 76-54 win over Louisville.
The drought was over. The Huskies completed their third undefeated championship season — the fifth in women’s basketball history. Moore would be national player of the year, Charles and Montgomery joining her as All-Americans.
“Now we can breathe,” said Montgomery.
Chapter 7 – Perfection Yet Again
Unbeaten in 1995. Unbeaten in 2002. Unbeaten in 2009.
“It doesn’t matter what the score is,” Auriemma once said. “My players are always under the impression that they are going to win. I’ve seen teams that accept losing say, ‘It’s not our day today; we’ll get it tomorrow.’ Well, my guys refuse to accept that. They will not accept it.”
If there is a level beyond perfection, UConn’s intention was to stamp its logo on it in 2009-10, following the 39-0 perfection of 2008-09, when the Huskies won every game by at least 10 points, the only team in NCAA history to do so.
There is a lot of love between players and coaches which is just one reason for the success of the Huskies.
The Huskies had their seventh national championship. They had a winning streak of 78. They had the Associated Press player of the year and Wooden Award winner (Charles) and the Wade Trophy winner (Moore).
But more than anything, they had surpassed their own system of measure, one that all teams that follow likely will be hard-pressed to emulate.
How can anybody be better than perfect times two?
Chapter Eight – Know Thy Enemy
In the summer of 2007, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, angered about recruiting tactics that led Maya Moore to UConn, abruptly ended the illustrious series that had provided the sport its most spirited rivalry and its growth chart since 1995.
Summitt’s departure left the stage open for a new central character to star in the drama. Was there another perceived villainess willing to joust with Geno Auriemma, the game’s Prince Valiant?
It turns out, there was. The Fighting Irish had enhanced their national recruiting and closed the gap that separated UConn from other schools even before that second consecutive unbeaten national championship in 2010.
“We keep talking about the Fighting Irish. We are the Fighting Irish. Let’s give it a go,” McGraw said.
Chapter Nine – American Experience
By 2013, you watched “Bonanza” reruns on a phone and college football bowl games on a flat-screen TV. And then everything changed. The cash and influence from football shook up UConn’s world.
Some schools in the Big East, including UConn, decided money and football mattered more than basketball and left for other conferences. Geno Auriemma found his program in the American Athletic Conference at the start of 2013-14 season.
I was able to quietly slip into the interview room where ESPN was doing some pre-game promotions with players which allowed me to catch these three letting their personalities shine through. Moments like these are very hard to gain access to but with a little luck and persuasion of the right people you can get some great images behind the scenes.
But when it came to the championship game against Notre Dame Stefanie Dolson and the UConn Huskies had their “game face” on as they rolled to a 79-58 victory.
Chapter Ten – Sustained Greatness
By the time John Thurston brought St. Francis Brooklyn to Gampel Pavilion in March 2015 to play its first-ever NCAA Tournament game, the silver-haired man with a distinctive New York lilt was well into his fifth decade coaching men’s and women’s basketball.
“The only thing I can compare UConn to in the time I have been around is UCLA. I haven’t seen anything else quite like it in my experience — the sustained excellence. I don’t know if it can ever be duplicated. It’s astonishing to see, sitting where I am.”
On the 6th of December Moriah Jefferson’s stats during the Huskies game against Notre Dame in South Bend looked like this – TOT FG 0-8, 3 PNT 0-3, FT FTA 0-0, REBOUNDS OF – 0, DE -1, TOT 1, FP – 5, TP – 0, A – 2, TO – 5, BLK – 0, S – 1, all that in 21 minutes. Defenders stayed off her and she was a non-factor in a 76-58 victory that day but leading up the championship game she told reporters that she didn’t want to ever let her teammates down like that again. Not to worry as she constantly caused problems for Lindsay Allen and the rest of the Fighting Irish as she poured in 15 points, dished out 5 assists and 4 steals in 40 minutes to help the Huskies to a 63-53 victory.
A collective gasp could be heard through out the arena and across Husky Nation when Breanna Stewart twisted her left ankle while being defended by Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner during the first half. Stewart went to the bench to have the ankle looked at then returned a minute later and finished the night with 15 rebounds, 8 points, 4 blocks and her third national championship.
Geno Auriemma’s program frequently has been compared to the UCLA men, coached by John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, since the night in Hartford — Dec. 21, 2010 — when Maya Moore scored a career-high 41 points to lead UConn to its 89th consecutive victory.
That was one more than the record run Wooden’s team compiled in the 1970s, when the Bruins were redefining dynasty by winning 10 national championships in 12 seasons.
And from that point on it appeared even clearer that Auriemma was an icon in his own right, closing in on another, but with the advantage of youth and time on his side.
Once again he was carried off the court on the shoulders of his devoted players…
I have been fortunate to cover about half of these championships in some capacity over the 15 years I’ve been on staff at The Hartford Courant. Whether it was as a photographer or an on site editor, I’ve witnessed some amazing times for both the women’s and men’s programs. – John Altavilla / The Hartford Courant
Choosing images for this book project was challenging. The number of photos available , from each season is overwhelming and narrowing it down for the book left many amazing photos out. Trying to find the right balance of action, reaction and behind the scenes photos without looking redundant became more difficult in the latter chapters, they all seem to look like arms, legs and basketballs after a while. In the end I think we put together a pretty nice collection of images to reflect the talent and emotion of this very successful program. Congratulations to Geno Auriemma, Chris Dailey, the entire coaching staff and players from the past two decades on your accomplishment.