(Guru's note: The main game story is below this post.)
By Kayla Goldman
SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The 53-47 win by Connecticut over Stanford in the Astrodome Tuesday night brought a second-straight unbeaten national title that was a special achievement.
Notable as it was, the triumph also meant the close of collegiate careers for five of the 11 Huskies who as seniors finished with a 146-6 overall record to go with the two trophies.
“This win means everything,” said Kaili McLaren, one of the departing players. “To get through everything and pull out strong means the world. There’s so much history that came before me and now we got to make a little history. This is a family atmosphere. I’m going to miss my team mates so much and I’m going to miss the coaches so much. The coaches helped us get through everything and win.”
Shea Ralph, a Connecticut assistant coach who played for the Huskies from 1996-2001, knows the hard work and dedication it takes to capture a championship with one of the nation’s most elite programs.
She was named Most Outstanding Player in the 2000 championship, in which the Huskies defeated Tennessee 70-61 in Philadelphia.
Ralph, who had been an assistant at Pittsburgh, returned to Connecticut at the beginning of the 2009 season filling the shoes of Tonya Cardoza, the longtime aide to Geno Auriemma who took the Temple head coaching job..
“I’m a lot more nervous coaching than I was playing. It was easier playing – I had control over stuff. You feel like you have control over the outcome,” Ralph said. “You try to do the best to prepare your players as a coach, and you really want them to end their career the right way.”
She spoke of the senior class and their contributions.
“These seniors are just a great group. There are five of them. That’s almost half of our team. We are going to miss them so much on the bus, in the locker room, everywhere. We are going to miss them a lot. They are a huge part of our personality. I am happy they can leave with this win,” Ralph said.
Meghan Gardler, a native of Springfield, couldn’t be happier for the team and the win.
“These girls are my family,” the former Cardinal O’Hara star said.. “They are my best friends. I am going to miss them so much. I had three surrogate moms in the coaching staff and these girls are all my sisters. Geno (Auriemma) was like my father,” Gardler said.
The loss of senior Tina Charles, who will be taken by the Connecticut Sun Thursday as the number one pick in the 2010 WNBA draft, will be of an incredible magnitude.
“More than anything elseTina brings, we will miss Tina’s presence the most,” Ralph said.
“Her leadership, in the ways she’s the glue of our team more than anything. We will miss her contributions on the court and off the court. But just having her inside in the paint, doesn’t matter what she’s doing, it’s just that presence.”
Charles finishes atop the record books for Connecticut in both points and rebounds: 2,345 and 1,367, respectively.
“I’m sitting here trying to fight back tears because I’m going to miss this team and miss ’Coach. I’m grateful for everything he’s done for me. I’m going to miss everything about this program,” Charles said.
Fellow senior, Jacquie Fernandes, understands Charles’ sentiment: “It’s more than playing for Connecticut. It’s about being a part of a family, a sisterhood. I’m never going to forget it. Once you’re a husky, you’re always a husky. Whether you play four minutes or forty minutes, you’ve made your contributions.”
Kalana Greene, also expected to be in the WNBA draft, is the other senior.
While the Connecticut seniors reflect on the history and the bonds made, the underclassmen are excited for the promise of the future.
Tiffany Hayes, a sophomore guard who hasn’t lost in her Connecticut career, said, “It’s a surreal feeling not losing a single game. Coming out of high school, you think, alright, you’ll lose one or two at least, but Caroline (Doty of Germantown Academy), Kelly (Fairs), Heather (Buck), I, we haven’t lost. We are all still excited. We are aiming for four titles, and we don’t want to know what it feels like to lose. Caroline and I are looking forward to doing it. We’re going to try.”