When Geno Auriemma sent his University of Connecticut women's basketball team home for Christmas in 2010, the Huskies were on a roll and on top of the world having just one-upped UCLA's 88-game winning streak by routing Florida State at a sold-out XL Center in Hartford.
But by the time UConn reunited in California for games with Pacific and Stanford something had happened. The faces -- including Maya Moore, Kelly Faris, Bria Hartley, and Stefanie Dolson -- were the same but Auriemma could sense the Huskies were different. All of a sudden everything was a struggle. They beat Pacific but didn't look good doing it. When they got to Stanford two days later it caught up to them. The Cardinal jumped out to an early lead and went on to a 71-59 win at Maples Pavilion that ended UConn's NCAA-record winning streak.
The second-ranked Huskies are back at the scene of the loss for the first time since that event and Saturday they take on No. 1 Stanford (4 p.m., ESPNU) with only the top spot in the polls on the line.
For Auriemma, whatever was in the California air two years ago is gone and he expects his team to be up for its toughest challenge of the season to date.
"What I know is we don't have all that extra stuff hanging over us," Auriemma said. "This year, we didn't go home for Christmas with a 90-game winning streak so we didn't have to deal with all that emotional stuff that was happening during the entire month of December. This year we just went home and did our thing so I think right now we are the same team that played the University of Hartford."
The UConn coaches and players went home for the holiday after last Saturday's 102-45 win over Hartford and arrived in California Wednesday night in time to practice. After facing Stanford, the Huskies will head north to take on Oregon in Eugene Monday afternoon.
"When we came out here last time we got here on the 26th and we played the 28th and the 30th so we really didn't have the time that you would like," Auriemma said. "But this gives us a little more time maybe. I don't know if that makes a big difference or a little difference, but it doesn't feel as rushed. I think last time when we got here, we got here, we practiced, we played Pacific right away, we came here, and we played. And, plus, the streak and all that stuff that we were dealing with it just seemed to be a frenzy about it that I don't sense at all."
UConn (10-0) has not been atop the Associated Press rankings since the final poll of the 2010-11 season prior to the NCAA tournament. Stanford (11-0) has been No. 1 since knocking off defending national champion Baylor last month and its six-week run at No. 1 matches the longest the Cardinal have been in that spot.
Stanford has also won 82 straight home games, the second-longest streak to UConn's 99 in NCAA history. The Cardinal's last loss at Maples Pavilion was to Florida State in a 2007 NCAA tournament second-round game.
But the atmosphere surrounding the game isn't bigger than the game as it was two years ago, though another sellout crowd will be waiting for UConn.
"It is different," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "Last year's team was different when we played them. Two years ago the focus was definitely Maya Moore. We went over basically every situation that we could, where she catches the ball, what moves she wanted to make, how we were going to defend her. It wasn't all Maya Moore but a lot of it was her. This year's team, they do have a lot of weapons. Bria Hartley is a returning All-American. Whether they start Caroline Doty or Breanna Stewart, they are both outstanding players, Kelly Faris is playing very, very well. They have great size, athleticism, versatility and they are very well coached. We are not focused on one player as much as we are focused on their system."
UConn has four players averaging in double figures with Faris and reserve Brianna Banks in the nines. Stewart is the leading scorer with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who had 25 against Stanford a year ago, right behind.
But Stanford has its share of offensive weapons as well.
All-American junior forward Chiney Ogwumike is averaging a double-double (21.8 points, 12.8 rebounds) and has to be a top challenger to Baylor's Brittney Griner as national Player of the Year. Senior forward Joslyn Tinkle has developed an inside game to complement her perimeter game. A season ago in the Huskies' 68-58 win over the Cardinal in Hartford, Stanford's backcourt did not get much accomplished. But sophomore Amber Orrange and junior Toni Kokenis are much improved and are off to solid starts.
Stanford is coming off a two-game road sweep last week of then-No. 21 South Carolina and then-No. 10 Tennessee.
"They've won some of the games that they've played, some big games that they've played, because they've played well as a team and not just that Chiney played well," Auriemma said. "They've gotten a lot better. I don't think there's anybody on Stanford's team that isn't better than they were last year. That's why they're where they are right now."
In the Huskies' win over the Cardinal last year, Faris drew the defensive assignment against Nneka Ogwumike, who went to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft and the league's Rookie of the Year last summer.
Faris, though she'll be giving up four inches in height, figures to get 6-foot-3 Chiney Ogwumike for long stretches Saturday.
"Stanford's got a lineup that's not easy to match up with," Auriemma said. "And I'm sure Kelly will end up guarding Chiney. I'm sure that will happen and I'm sure that will happen frequently. But one of the problems that I think teams have that have played Stanford is that if you put somebody like Kelly, who I think can do a great job, then Stefanie's stuck guarding a kid that spends most of her time on the perimeter.
"It's not an easy decision to make and just say, 'OK, we'll see if Kelly can handle Chiney and then we'll worry about everything else.' I don't know that that’s necessarily the best way to go about it all the time. So I think we're going to have to be smart about it. I'm not worried about what Kelly will do defensively. I don't think there's anybody in the country she can't guard. But, at the same time, I think we've got to be careful what the other matchups are because that's helping ourselves in one area and hurting ourselves in another."
Stanford has always been a tough defensive team under Hall of Fame coach VanDerveer. And the Cardinal coaching staff has certainly watched tapes of UConn's games with Maryland and Penn State, who kept the Huskies in the low-60s with a physical style.
But VanDerveer admits it needs to have a limit.
"I think there is a part for physical play but not at the expense of seeing the speed, the athleticism and skills that we have," she said. "We have never been a team that said we are going to try to beat you up. We are going to beat you with basketball and our team is basically about basketball. It is really important that our key players are in the game and available. I don't know what styles other people play. I, personally, think the game has become too physical and doesn't highlight the speed and skill of female players that people are paying good money to come and see. From my standpoint it is just a basketball game."
The Huskies are expected to be without sophomore Kiah Stokes (right shin) for the third straight game while freshman Morgan Tuck (right knee) has been practicing but is listed as questionable.
UConn is 0-3 all time at Maples Pavilion with losses in 1988, 1993, and 2010. The Huskies will come back again in two years but that doesn't do their juniors and seniors much good.
For Faris, the loss two years ago was one of only seven she's been a part of in 125 games at UConn.
"Any loss is going to be frustrating and stick with you," Faris said. "But at that point it was definitely a hard one because everybody thought that we were unstoppable. So I think it was good for us at that point.