As much as Americans love sports, they love winning even more. We invented the big foam finger that declares "We're No. 1.'' Our language is stuffed with phrases such as "Just win, baby'' and "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.'' Coaches who build champions are cast in bronze, while those who fail are cast off, chased out of their jobs by mobs wielding the cyber-equivalent of pitchforks and torches.

So Americans ought to love the Connecticut women's basketball team. The Huskies are a huge favorite to win their seventh national championship Tuesday night, extending an NCAA-record 77-game winning streak in the process. They combine many qualities people claim to admire: rare individual talent, seamless teamwork, dedication to the game and an almost superhuman will to win. And that, amazingly, has led to complaints that the Huskies are somehow harming women's basketball.

Dynasties usually become celebrated slices of history, commemorated in best-selling books and TV documentaries. UCLA's record run of 88 consecutive victories and seven consecutive NCAA titles in men's basketball made a legend of John Wooden in the 1960s and '70s. Ditto the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi, who dominated the NFL in the 1960s. People still are awed by the "Showtime'' years of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Michael Jordan reign of the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics' supremacy under Red Auerbach, the Yankees' golden era under Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. No one would suggest those teams were bad for their sports.

But that is exactly what some are saying about UConn. The argument: By winning every game they have played in the past two years, and by throttling their opponents by an average of nearly 42 points during the NCAA tournament, the Huskies' dominance has made the game predictable and uninteresting. Rubbish. If a men's team had accomplished such a feat, most of the mainstream sports media would be bowing to kiss its $200 sneakers. A woman's team does it, and it's viewed as a problem.

UConn's plainspoken coach, Geno Auriemma, has thankfully called out these hypocrites. "I think there's tremendous interest in what we're doing,'' he said before the Final Four. "And I think it's all because of the streak. Obviously, there's enough people who think the other way, that for whatever reason we're pushing people away from the game or we're not helping the game grow.

"That's not my job. That's not what I get paid for, to help grow the game of women's basketball. My job is to make sure my team is the best it can possibly be. ... I don't think anybody can say, if they're being really objective, that being this good is bad. I guess only in America could you make comments like that.''

And only in an alternative universe could they be taken seriously. The idea that Auriemma has some obligation to "grow the game,'' rather than win, would be offensive if it wasn't so ridiculous. The implication is that women athletes shouldn't aspire to dominate their opponents. They should be guided by altruism, by an unspoken duty to serve some greater good. In other words: If UConn is ahead by 30 in the title game, Auriemma ought to tell his team to back off, because someone might be bored by a lopsided game and think poorly of women's basketball.

In reality, Auriemma ought to be congratulated. The UConn streak has gained immeasurable publicity for the sport, enticing people who never have watched a women's game to take a peek just to see what all the fuss is about. They have seen incredibly fit and talented players, committed to defense as well as offense, putting out a relentless effort every second on the floor. The Huskies' program also is untainted by scandal and noted for academic achievement.

Those who think that is somehow bad for women's basketball are looking at the wrong side of the equation. UConn hired a coach willing to set a new standard for excellence, then gave him the resources to build a program that represents the game at its best. Anyone truly concerned about the state of women's hoops should encourage more schools to fully commit to pursuing the same measure of greatness.

Wooden told the Wall Street Journal last week that UConn's dominance is good for the game, because it encourages other teams to rise to its level. He never felt the need to apologize for his achievements. Neither should Auriemma and his team, who should receive nothing but praise Tuesday night no matter the outcome.

Rachel Blount •