B ehind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players who recall their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Tina Charles recalls UConn’s loss to LSU in the 2007 regional finals.
That’s the only word that comes to mind when I think about UConn’s regional final game against LSU in 2007.
That game still haunts me.
I was a freshman.
I was exposed.
It was the second time we played LSU that season. We won the first game, and I’d done well shutting down their biggest and best player, Sylvia Fowles. Because of that, I had some confidence.
But I was still nervous.
My freshman year was, by my standards, somewhat mediocre. I’d been named a McDonald’s All-American, and won 57 consecutive games with my high school team, Christ the King in New York. We were ranked No. 1 in the nation. But I didn’t know what hard work was until I got to UConn. I still remember those first practices and that steep learning curve — what it took to work hard, not to take any possession off, taking the game seriously with every shot, every rebound, every sprint. There were so many things I hadn’t put together.
Coach Auriemma is great at taking players to the next level. You tell him that you want to be fast and he makes you faster; you tell him you want to be good and he makes you great. He sees you as no one else can. I told him I wanted to be everything — I wanted to be an All American, I wanted to be a Player of the Year, I wanted to be a National Champion.
I was green. But I was hungry.
And here I was, on a championship run.
I roomed with one of our guards, Mel Thomas, the night before the game. We had just played NC State and I’d had a decent performance. But I still had to face Sylvia Fowles again. It was on my mind all night. I couldn’t sleep.
I ran through the game plan over and over: play Sylvia hard, and play her aggressively. I watched film from the previous game against LSU and took note of how I asserted myself, both offensively and defensively. That’s it. That’s all I have to do, I thought. Body up and take over.
Still, I was extremely nervous. I felt it during shoot around. I felt it when the game opened. And I played that way.
From the opening whistle, I wasn’t in attack mode. I took a shot. Blocked. Another shot. Blocked again. Sylvia was swatting everything away. She was stronger than me, and I wasn’t fighting back.
We were supposed to be the aggressors. But they took it to us that first half and we couldn’t respond.
Our backs were against the wall.
34-22, LSU at the half.
Coach Auriemma kept asking us how we were going to respond. That’s what he does — he finds a way to trigger a response from every single player. He might challenge you; he might tear into you. He’ll always force you to dig deeper, play harder, play smarter.
He was pushing us to respond as individuals and as a team.
We didn’t. We got worse throughout the game.
In the second half, we tried every defense, every rotation we could to shut down Sylvia. Kaili McLaren came in off our bench to support me in the post. She got exposed, too.
I was on the bench for a couple of minutes before I walked up to Coach. He was standing just behind the coach’s line. Put me back in. I want to play, I told him. Even if Sylvia blocked 50 more shots, I wanted to be on that court. I wanted my teammates to see that they could depend on me to push and try, even when we were destined to lose.
I still remember the score at the last buzzer: 73-50, LSU.
I didn’t watch the rest of the tournament.
It was eerily quiet on the trip back to Connecticut. We weren’t supposed to go out like that.
Coach always has a meeting before he lets players off after the season. I went to his office. Do you still want this? Do you still want to accomplish everything you told me at the beginning? He asked me. He was always hard on me. The truth was I wanted it all, even more.
Before he let me go, he pulled out a newspaper. On the front page was a picture of Sylvia Fowles blocking one of my shots. He just handed it to me, across the table, without saying a word. The meeting was over.
I cut that picture out and posted it in my locker. I stared at that picture every day up through my senior year. It was a reminder of the player I wanted to be. I wanted to be greater than her. I wanted to be greater than myself. I never wanted to be dominated by another player like I was in that game.
Winning isn’t everything but the process it takes to win is, which led me to win consecutive titles in 2009-2010. And it was that moment, walking out of Coach Auriemma’s office with that newspaper in my hand, when I set out to prove myself as a player and as an individual.
I never looked back.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.