By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — There were the chants of “88, 88″ from the 15,000 at Madison Square Garden and the roars of “89, 89, 89″ from the 16,294 that watched some history at the XL Center two nights later.
Somehow a NCAA-record 79-game winning streak didn’t bring out the same energy and enthusiasm nor muster the attention that the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team got when it topped the UCLA men’s 88-game run back in December, 2010.
This is where Heather Buck comes in. UConn’s fifth-year senior center will make her second career start today when the third-ranked Huskies host Seton Hall on Senior Day at Gampel Pavilion (3:30 p.m., SNY). It could be the most memorable day of her career.
But the native of Stonington, Conn., will always have the night of Nov. 16, 2010. For without it, there might not have been what would eventually become a 90-game winning streak.
UConn built a 15-point lead against Brittney Griner and Baylor at the XL Center. But by the time reserve Samarie Walker and starter Stefanie Dolson fouled out with 7:24 left and Buck came in for the first time, the Bears led by six and it would soon become eight. But down the stretch, Buck’s defense limited Griner to two shots and two points. Bria Hartley’s 3-point basket gave the Huskies a lead with 2:09 to go and they would hold on for a 65-64 win for their 80th straight win.
“There are a lot of things that will stand out, but that is probably one of my proudest individual moments is playing against her,” Buck said. “I don’t think of it that way that, ‘Oh, she didn’t have anything for me.’ I think of it like, I stepped up to the challenge, and I actually accomplished something.”
Buck would prove the effort was no fluke a year later in Waco as she had four rebounds and a block while blanketing Griner over 14 minutes before suffering a right wrist injury in UConn’s 66-61 loss to Baylor.
Those games, her only previous start against Holy Cross, and a game against West Virginia two years ago were about the only times Buck was on the floor when a game was being decided. She didn’t get in last Monday when Baylor beat the Huskies 76-70 in Hartford.
Today will be her 115th game and her first start since the 2010-11 opener. The run of 78 straight games between starts is the longest in UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s tenure.
“Things didn’t go the perfect storybook way that you want them to for me,” Buck said. “But I do still have a lot of fun coming out here every day. You have to take what you have and take what you are given and make the best of it. No matter what happens, I will find a way to contribute. I will be as loud, obnoxious and jumping around cheering as anyone can be. My job is to be a good teammate, and if I do that job then, yeah, I’m having a lot of fun.”
Buck will be joined in the starting lineup today by fellow fifth-year senior Caroline Doty and her rommmate senior Kelly Faris. For Doty, it will her 117th start. For Faris, it will be her 103rd consecutive start and 142nd straight game.
“It’s easy to just say, ‘Hey, if I’m not starting and playing 30 minutes or if I’m not coming off the bench and getting a lot of playing time then what’s the point,’ ” Auriemma said. “But to Heather’s credit there was never anything other than, ‘This is what I want to do. This is where I want to be.’ Physically, it was difficult for her. But mentally she never walked away from it.”
Buck will move on. She is wrapping up her work in UConn’s five-year nursing program and will graduate in May.
She wouldn’t change anything.
“The overall experience here absolutely outweighs anything I think I could have had somewhere else,” Buck said. “That is one of the things that was really important to me when I was looking at schools, ‘Are these people who I want to be around all the time?’ I am not saying that any of the other places didn’t have people that I wanted to be around all the time, but this was a really great fit for me. I don’t like to think about regrets. I feel like there isn’t really any point. This is the way it went. And I am very happy with my decision. We won two national championships so far while I’ve been here and played on arguably the best team or couple best teams in the history of women’s basketball. Who else can say that? That’s really cool.”