By Mel Greenberg
Connecticut junior 6-foot-4 center Tina Charles rang up 25 points and 19 rebounds Tuesday night in St. Louis as the Huskies cashed in on her most outstanding player performance with a 76-54 victory over Big East rival Louisville to finish with a perfect 39-0 record and a sixth NCAA women’s basketball title.
The crowd of 18,478 in the Scottrade Center – the first non-sellout Final Four since 1992 – watched the Huskies join the 1995 and 2002 UConn contingents with perfect records. The current edition also became the first men’s or women’s team to go unbeaten and win each game by at least 10 points.
Sophomore forward Maya Moore, the consensus national player of the year, added 18 points as did senior point guard Renee Montgomery, who is expected to be taken quickly in Thursday’s WNBA draft.
“There’s nothing that I’m more proud of than the fact that especially these three came in every day from September 1st until today and gave me everything they had,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said of his trio of all-Americans. “And, like I told them, I hope I gave them as much back, and tonight we gave you the best of what we got.”
Angel McCoughtry, who might become the WNBA’s overall No. 1 pick, scored 23 points for Louisville (34-5) while Candyce Bingham added 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Two other teams in NCAA Division I women’s history also had perfect records – Tennessee in 1998 and Texas in 1986.
Germantown Academy’s Caroline Doty, a spectacular freshman shooting guard who has been sidelined since mid-January with a knee injury, joined in the elation even if she couldn’t contribute on the court.
“It’s a dream come true,” Doty said. “You can’t express it in words. To be out there with your best friends who you fought with for so many battles, it’s just unbelievable.
“The last 10 seconds on the bench was the best feeling in the world,” she added. “We worked too hard to let one game ruin our perfect season. We just had it in us and we just kept fighting and fighting.”
The Huskies had routed the Cardinals twice with a 93-65 win at home in the regular season and again with a 75-36 win in the Big East title game in Hartford.
Louisville hung tougher in the early going Tuesday night and played to a 15-15 tie with 11 minutes 30 seconds left in the first half. But Connecticut began moving ahead, especially with Charles scoring at will on the inside and dominating the boards on defense by grabbing the Cardinals’ missed shots to already reach double double numbers at the end of the period.
On Sunday night, Connecticut had subdued Stanford in its national semifinals victory with a hot start in the second half. The Huskies used another quick outburst, Tuesday night, racing from a 39-25 halftime lead on a 10-2 run that began the countdown to the trophy presentation.
Moore and Montgomery had been the mainstays in the parade of Connecticut talent throughout the season but on Tuesday night it was Charles’ turn to blossom into a force.
“Tina Charles did an outstanding job of intimidating us,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “I thought she made us alter a lot of shots we really didn’t need to alter.
“And you know, we couldn’t – we had no answer for her. She’s so active in the post. We can defend post players that like to stay on the block and just try and post up, because we’ve got some kids that will work and battle and fight to do that,” Walz added.
“But what she does so well is she just moves from block to block so quick that at her size we have a hard time trying to keep up with her.”
Charles was a high school national player of the year out of the powerful Christ the King team in New York City.
“She got a big hug, a big hug before the game,” Auriemma said. “I told her that she could get a triple-double today. I’m really happy for her. I know how much this means to her, and how far she has come. I’m just thrilled to death for her.
“One of the things we talked about was: You can’t be a great player unless you play great in this game right here,” he said. “If you ever want to be called a great player, you’ve got to go to play great in this game. And she did.”
Charles talked about her rise.
“I was always convinced ever since I went to Connecticut that I do have the potential to be the best center in the country if I wanted to be,” Charles said. “I just needed the players around me to help me, which they always do every time I was in practice, and just having Coach in my ear, just pushing me all the time.”
Meanwhile, if Auriemma had one fear, it was that a loss in St. Louis would mean Montgomery’s career would end without an NCAA title. His great guards of the past such as Jen Rizzotti, Sue Bird, and Diana Taurasi had become part of championship contingents before they reached their senior season.
“To have Renee go through three years and do what she did, the thought of it not happening for her was just, honest to God, I’ve been ill,” he said.
“But all I kept thinking about was, man, I do not want to get up tomorrow morning with that feeling. And now I don’t have to.”
Moore, Charles, and Montgomery were joined on the all-tournament team by McCoughtry and Stanford’s Jayne Appel.