UConn's Conlon rolls with punches

NEW ORLEANS -- We know this: The pride of Derby, Conn., has thick skin. Connecticut guard Maria Conlon has been the subject of some of coach Geno Auriemma's best barbs -- and they bounce right off of her.

Certainly, the full-time Huskies media know many more of them. But two of my favorites came last year, when Auriemma said of Conlon, "She has that great combination: She may be short, but she is slow.''

Then when asked why he recruited her, Auriemma said, "I have no idea. When I watched Maria in high school, she was never happy on court. She has got a miserable on-court demeanor. If she were a doctor, she would have no patients.''

And how has Conlon dealt with this? It's a great comfort to her, actually.

"Anybody who knows his personality knows that's nothing but a compliment,'' Conlon said. "I don't think he comes into the media and says stuff like that about players who he doesn't think are any good.

"Anytime he complains to you guys about what I'm doing or not doing, that's when I feel good. That means he cares about me as a person and a player. When he makes jabs, I kind of get a little smirk when I hear about it. Like, 'Oh, all right, I'm in the back of coach's head for a second there.' ''

Connecticut has the megastar in Diana Taurasi. It has the stars-in-waiting such as Barbara Turner, Jessica Moore and Ann Strother. It
has the super sub, Ashley Battle.

Then there's Conlon, one of those players for whom people often use a lot of "G'' words: glue, gritty, gumption, gamer.

Many successful teams have players like that ... but it's a badge of honor to be that player on a team going for its third consecutive national championship.

Conlon thinks no one but the coaches, her teammates and her family really notices her. But she's wrong. You can "parachute'' into
following the Huskies only in big games and the NCAA Tournament, and still be able to see it.

To fully appreciate that player on a team, though, you have to watch regularly, the whole season. Because then you can really catalogue the moments when she runs down a ball or hits a shot or just does something that -- to describe it -- sounds rather simple. Yet it came at the exact moment the team needed it.

And while some might say, "Well, a lot of people could do that,'' the fact is, a lot of people didn't do it. That player did.

Conlon has figured out this role well. It's funny, she's so used to being "undersold'' that she undersells herself. She's listed at 5 feet
9, yet she said Monday of opponents' game plans, "No one's really worried about the 5-foot-8 guard from Derby, Conn.''

Heck, Maria, if they are going to give you that extra inch, go ahead and take it. But if Conlon were a football player, she'd probably say, "What did they list as my best time in the 40? Ha! Was that in my dreams?''

Conlon has done what Connecticut has asked. She averages 5.9 points and 2.9 rebounds, has 95 assists to 58 turnovers.

"All I'm worried about is making the stupid little plays that no one else wants to make,'' she said. "Some days those plays don't show up in box scores, some days they do.''

In the end, they add up to championships.

"You get recruited here to win games,'' Conlon said. "Once you get here, and you get older, you see the big picture. I can admit that not until this year did I really see that.

"When we say 'win' we don't mean it as in 'win-loss column.' We mean it in this way: How we play the game, how we represent ourselves, our program and the university. You see the game (Sunday), and we had 20 alumni in the stands watching and feeling the sense of, 'I helped start this, I have a piece of what they're doing right now.' And 10 years down the road, we'll feel the same way.''

It's a great message to anyone who's a part of something. Or anyone who wants to be.

"When I came here, I wasn't the quickest or tallest or most highly recruited,'' Conlon said. "The coaching staff did a good job of
changing my mindset, making me realize I could do the things they needed me to do. I think I did get the most out of my ability while I was here for four years.''

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.