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Preparation helped us win it all

Tina Charles, left, celebrates with teammates Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery upon winning the 2009 title against Louisville. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Since it is the month of March, only two things are on my mind: The fact that there is only one more month until I am back on U.S. soil, and that MARCH MADNESS is beginning!!!

I always look forward to both the men’s and women’s tournament, and that is definitely the case this year.

For the women, of course, I am going for my UConn Huskies to win it all. For the men, I am still undecided. There have already been so many upsets during the regular season, and there also have been injuries to key players like Nerlens Noel of the Kentucky Wildcats.

Each March since my graduation in 2010, I tend to reflect back on my NCAA tournament runs and the ups and downs during each tournament. Arriving as a freshman at UConn, I expected to go the Final Four all four years of my career. I didn’t give much thought to the hard work, dedication and, most importantly, the commitment it would take from each player to get there.

It didn’t take long to learn.

My freshmen year, we lost to LSU in the Elite Eight of the 2007 NCAA tournament. The next year, we advanced to the Final Four in Tampa before losing to Stanford in the semifinal round. In that 2008 Final Four, it seemed we were more excited about being there than remembering we had games to play and win.

But then, in the next two seasons, the unthinkable happened. We won back-to-back NCAA championships and went undefeated each season, finishing 78-0. Since those last two seasons at UConn, I have never been on a team where each individual was dedicated and expected greatness each night we played and during every practice we had.

Coach Geno Auriemma and the rest of the staff did a great job of tapping into each player -- from the first five on the court to the last player off the bench -- letting us know we were depended on for every game and practice. We went into every game believing that if we did not perform to the best of our ability, if we missed a defensive rotation, did not box out our man, or not take every possession seriously, that we could lose the game.

We practiced and played in every game with that mentality. In every practice, Coach Auriemma would put us in the most difficult game situations because he wanted us ready for anything that could happen. There were times in practice when we would be down five points against our practice players with a minute on the clock and we would have to continuously figure out how to score and get stops on the defensive end. Many times during those practices, I thought, "Why are we doing this all the time?" But Coach had a way of knowing to always expect the unexpected in all circumstances.

The unexpected happened my senior year in the 2010 national championship game in San Antonio. We were playing Stanford, and the entire first half everything that could go wrong did! We were missing shots, not executing plays, and missing defensive rotations. At halftime we were losing, and I won’t forget a Stanford player running toward their locker room shouting, "One more half!"

As much as we were disappointed in our effort in the first half, Coach Auriemma reminded us at halftime that we have been in this situation before many times in practice. Going into the second half, our main focus was our defensive effort. We knew if we continued to get stops and pushed the ball up the court as many times as we could, we had a chance of turning the game around. We did just that, and it was the best team win I have had in my basketball career.

Coming out of the locker room, we had players who had never been down at the half in a regular-season game that season, and they were all being depended upon. The reason we were able to turn that game around was because we had done it in practice countless times, and had the confidence going into that second half knowing we could do it one more time!

I want to wish all teams on the men’s and women’s sides the best of luck this year in the 2013 NCAA Tournament! ESPECIALLY MY HUSKIES #BLEEDBLUE