NEW YORK — After the final buzzer sounded and another win was in the books, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma found his family in the stands. He hugged his smiling mother, then kissed his happy wife.
Turns out, No. 88 meant something special after all.
Already with no equal in women's basketball, UConn won its 88th straight game Sunday to match the men's record set by coach John Wooden and his UCLA teams from 1971-74. Tiffany Hayes scored 26 points and Maya Moore added 22 to help the top-ranked Huskies rout No. 11 Ohio State 81-50 in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“They were unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable,” Auriemma said. “I like to remind my players all the time, you don't stumble and bumble into the history book. You'll have to do it the right way if you want to get in there. It may not come again.”
UConn already owned the longest winning streak in NCAA women's basketball history. Next up, the Huskies (10-0) can surpass the UCLA men Tuesday night at home against No. 15 Florida State.
Connecticut matched the Bruins' mark before a crowd of 15,232 — the second-biggest for a women's game at Madison Square Garden. With 40 seconds left, the fans rose and chanted “88! 88!”
The no-nonsense Auriemma had downplayed the significance of this milestone. But unlike most of their previous wins during the streak, UConn players stuck around and celebrated at halfcourt.
“It's kind of mind-boggling,” Moore said. “It's something special, but we're still in the middle of our season. You can't take in the full reality of what's going on. Moments like this you can sit and appreciate where you've come from.”
The Garden was a good place to make some history for UConn and its Hall of Fame coach.
Despite being raised in Philadelphia, Auriemma grew up a Knicks fan. The prized possession in his office at UConn isn't any of the trophies or awards he's won, it's an autographed basketball of the New York starting five from the 1970 NBA championship team.
Coincidentally, the 88th straight win came against Auriemma's good friend, Jim Foster, who gave him his coaching start. Auriemma was an assistant for the girls team under Foster back when both were at Bishop McDevitt High School in Philadelphia.
When Foster got the St. Joseph's women's basketball job in 1978-79 he brought along Auriemma as an assistant coach. Neither could have imagined that 35 years later they would be facing each other at MSG with so much at stake.
“The number's the number. I don't know if that changes me a whole lot right now,” Auriemma said. “I'm going to go to a good restaurant tonight. I'm going to have a good bottle of wine. I would have done that either way.”
Ohio State (8-2) scored the first six points on consecutive 3-pointers by Brittany Johnson. Then, Hayes took over. After two free throws by Bria Hartley, Hayes scored nine straight points, making three layups and a 3-pointer.
“We were just really locked in after that,” Auriemma said. “I'm really proud of my players right now.”
Moore's pull-up jumper gave UConn a 13-6 lead. Jantel Lavender's layup ended the 5-minute scoring drought, but 3-pointers by Hayes and Moore made it 19-10.
The Huskies led 29-21 before scoring nine straight points — the last five by Kelly Ferris — to take a 38-21 lead. UConn led 40-26 at halftime as Moore and Hayes combined for 28 points.
Moore ended any hopes of an Ohio State comeback, scoring nine of the Huskies' first 13 points in the second half as they broke the game open.
“You've got to neutralize the great players and make their role players have to do something out of their role for them to win that night,” Foster said.
Lavender came into the game leading the nation in scoring with 26.6 points a game, but was held to just 14 for Ohio State, which fell to 2-7 against No. 1 teams.
The Huskies' last loss came against Stanford in the NCAA tournament national semifinals in 2008. Since then they have reeled off victory after victory, routing opponents in dominating fashion. Only twice during this unprecedented run has a team come within single digits of UConn — Stanford in the NCAA championship game last season and Baylor in early November.
UConn has won by an average of nearly 25 points a game against ranked teams during the streak. Rarely have the Huskies found themselves in trouble in those 30 games. They have trailed for just 134 minutes — including only 13 in the second half.
This was the fifth annual Maggie Dixon Classic honoring the former Army women's basketball coach, who died on April 6, 2006, of arrhythmia, likely caused by an enlarged heart.
Pittsburgh men's coach Jamie Dixon, Maggie's brother, said he had no idea that when the Huskies committed to the event they would be going for the milestone win.
“Maybe Maggie was looking down on us and figured it out on her own so we could get the Garden filled up for a women's college basketball game,” said Dixon, who sat with his family just a few rows up at midcourt.
No. 8 Texas A&M routed Rutgers 79-50 in the first game of the doubleheader.