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The glorious grit of UConn's Caroline Doty

The basketball was in the air, up for grabs. University of Connecticut sophomore point guard Caroline Doty wanted it, fought for it.

The basketball was in the air, up for grabs. University of Connecticut sophomore point guard Caroline Doty wanted it, fought for it.

That was halftime yesterday at Villanova's Pavilion. A UConn manager was throwing balls out for warm-ups. Doty - a UConn starter from the first game of her freshman year - wanted the first one. She was smiling, but she wanted it.

"That's her," said her coach, Geno Auriemma. "She's a throwback to the way things used to be."

The Germantown Academy graduate, who grew up in Collegeville and then Doylestown, runs the show for one of the most dominant teams ever assembled in any sport. The top-ranked Huskies aren't merely undefeated for the second straight season, after yesterday's 74-35 victory over Villanova. The defending national champions have won all of their 19 games by at least 19 points - by an average of 39 points.

Doty, who leads UConn in assists while averaging 8.6 points a game, adds  more than her jump shot and court vision. The sophomore tore her knee up playing soccer in high school, causing her to miss her senior basketball season at Germantown Academy. Then she tore the same anterior cruciate ligament last season, forcing her into more months of rehab after another surgery.

She's been tough for a lot longer than that.

"Even in the womb, she didn't have a fighting chance with her [twin] brother - she was kind of shoved up under my ribs while her brother took up the room," said Doty's mother, Sue Frekot. "She was born 8 pounds, her brother was 9-3. There wasn't much room in there. She had to fight her way even from inception."

Caroline's mother said she still has a photograph of Caroline as a toddler on her refrigerator: "She has Band-Aids all over her forehead, smiling away. Her brother had hit her with these metal trucks. She had to get stitches."

Caroline's two brothers play college football. Twin brother Kevin is a tight end at Lafayette. Michael, 15 months younger, is a wide receiver who just transferred from Maine to Temple. And when all three were growing up, it wasn't just Caroline who benefited from playing every sport with them. So did they, the brothers said.

"Her work ethic is probably one in a million," Michael said. "She'd get up at 7 o'clock, go shoot with her shooting coach."

Of course, there are tough kids playing in rec leagues all over the country. UConn won its 58th straight, all by double digits, because Auriemma has recruited an all-star team. It obviously takes talent to crack this lineup. It also takes self-confidence.

"You've got to think you're good," Auriemma said. "If you come up and think, 'Umm, I think,' you'll get eaten alive."

Auriemma admits he was surprised Doty earned an immediate starting spot as a freshman.

"She was physically tough," the UConn coach said. "Mentally, she had to grow. She's like what I used to call a [rabble-rouser]. In high school, she'd be on the court, somebody grabbed her, she'd smack them. A ref didn't make a call, she'd go down and punch the next kid down the floor. She also dove on every loose ball. She was flying out of bounds. She takes charge. She's one of those tough Philly kids."

Even now, Auriemma said, "it's an ongoing process." He pointed out that Doty got two fouls early and had to sit yesterday.

"I'm like, 'Your greatest strength is your toughness, and you don't take anything from anybody. Your biggest weakness is, your response to everything is to smack somebody.' "

So why she's starting? "She generally takes great care of the ball," Auriemma said. "She generally makes the right pass at the right time. You leave her open, she's going to make shots. And she's better than she looks when she gets in the lane in creating things."

From a young age, adults noticed that Doty could see everything on a basketball court. In middle school, when she'd show up at her brother's football practices and throw perfect spirals, teammates would ask why she couldn't play.

Doty had played Biddy League basketball with her brothers for years, dominating most of the boys. Her father put a stop to that when an embarrassed-to-be-dominated kid knocked her down with an illegal screen. It was time to stick to dominating the girls, to search out better competition. Her mom remembers fighting Schuylkill Expressway traffic to drive her from Collegeville to AAU practices at Germantown Friends School.

One more story about Doty's toughness: Playing in an AAU junior national tournament in Washington, she dove for a loose ball. An opposing player dove on top of her. Doty's two front teeth hit the wood floor. Parts of both teeth fell to the floor.

"Her first reaction, which was smart - she picked up the pieces," said Villanova freshman Jesse Carey, a teammate of Doty's at Germantown Academy and on that AAU team.

"There were a couple of chunks," Doty said. "I had chipped teeth before. I knew they were able to put them back."

She preserved the pieces of teeth in ice, her mom borrowed the car of a teammate's dad, and they drove back to a dentist in Doylestown, who put her front teeth back together, good as new. She returned to Washington the next day and played in a game.

That toughness is important - paramount, even - because of the injuries Doty later had to overcome. Returning from an ACL tear is a laborious process. Doing it twice in just over a year is torturous. The second one was tougher, Doty said, simply because she knew exactly what would be required.

Doty remembers the day after her surgery last January - "they had me on the training table. There was blood still on the gauze pad. I tried to lift my leg. I couldn't do it. I had tears in my eyes. I couldn't do it. I said, 'This is impossible.' I was sweating, overcome by the whole thing."

After about 10 minutes, she said, she was able to raise her leg a little bit.

"When I was able to do that, I knew I was able to do anything," Doty said.

Being a women's basketball player at UConn is a unique experience with a following like no other. All games that aren't nationally televised are shown on statewide public television - with the highest ratings for any public television show in the nation.

"It is pretty crazy," Kevin Doty said of watching autograph-seekers continually approaching Caroline if they go out to dinner after a game. Kevin related how even at Lafayette, he met a fellow student who heard his name and said, "Wait, are you related to Caroline Doty?"

"You must be from Connecticut," Kevin correctly surmised.

Caroline and her family talk about the family atmosphere fostered within the UConn program but also acknowledge that big-time college sports is a serious commitment.

"It's not easy what these kids go through," said Caroline's father, Kevin Doty. "They have to have some toughness or they're not going to make it."

Caroline's mother has nothing but praise for the UConn program and her daughter's role in it. She didn't want it to sound negative when she said, "It is a job, and they own her. When you go up for a weekend and expect to go out to dinner after a game, there are times she'll say, 'Sorry, I can't. I've got to take a recruit out.' This is a tremendous opportunity, but that's the kind of expectation you have to have."

No complaints from Caroline. She talked about how close this group is, how she can't imagine being anywhere else.

And when the Huskies really get rolling, Doty said, "it's the most fun anybody can have."