By Morris Phillips
EUGENE, OR–Under these relentless circumstances, and unprecedented personnel issues, only one coach could pull an NCAA title out of his hat.
One. Geno Auriemma, the iconic Connecticut coach, unyielding, principled and funny as ever, now in his 37th year at Storrs.
But first Auriemma needs January to end, and maybe February too. In front of a respectful, but blood thirsty crowd of 9,439, and a national television audience, Auriemma’s Huskies got embarrassed, losing 72-59 at Oregon after they trailed by as many as 24. Missing a pair of All-Americans, Christyn Williams and Paige Bueckers, and a third, transcendent recruit that might grow to become one of the 10 best players ever to play UConn, Azzi Fudd, the Huskies were shorthanded, and their social media star power severely paired.
“It’s another unfortunate blow to an already challenging season and especially when I thought Christyn’s game was playing at a real high level and she had put together a bunch of really good games,” Auriemma said. “It’s another punch in the gut for our team, for everybody.”
Fudd and Bueckers, in a lengthy leg brace, were in attendance and got some playful shots up in the pre-game warm-ups. Williams was not. Expected to play, she was effectively banished when her latest tests landed her in COVID protocols and on a plane alone back to Connecticut. The announcement was a made a mere four hours before tip.
The resurgent Ducks took full advantage, adding a second win over a Top 10 opponent in three days, after they outlasted No. 6 Arizona on Saturday. Connecticut was No. 9, but that number was a nod to them not losing–or winning–a game for weeks.
During the game, Auriemma combined stoic with concern, and kept teaching. Timeouts were calm, and the slew of missed shots in the first half drew a poker face. Never let them see you sweat, and bring the humor post-game in support.
“From a coaching standpoint, it’s been [subpar] coaching,” Auriemma said. “By far the worst it’s ever been and it shows up. It shows up. … I don’t know what language to speak to get my point across. My communication skills are not very good anymore.”
“Our guard play is not good. Plain and simple. I guess that’s something that we’re not used to here in Connecticut. But right now our guard play is not good. And it’s been a real struggle to get some of these guys to understand how to take care of the ball, how to make better decisions.”
Auriemma’s bit about Bueckers being from Hopkins, MN or John Hopkins University got sprinkled in as well, a nod to the star’s ability to concisely describe her rehabilitation as if she were her own doctor.
No matter the description, or the source, Geno the comedian’s just left pleading.
“I just want her back!” he laughed.
“Our guards didn’t play well. Plain and simple and you couldn’t take them out and put somebody else in to get them a breather. Again the game is won or lost by your guards and last year we had the best guard in the country and it was easy to win games. This year we don’t and it’s hard to win games and sometimes basketball is not that complicated.”
Auriemma’s won 11 NCAA titles in a 25-year stretch that represents the breadth and brilliance of his coaching career. The other 12 seasons he’s spent in Storrs, Connecticut weren’t bad. They just fell short of transcendence, just like this season-to-date.
On Monday afternoon, the coach that’s won 111 consecutive games, couldn’t coax 111 successful dribbles out of his club. One shot hit the side of the backboard, another barely scrapped the rim, and another was airball and drew jeers. In a lopsided, second quarter local hero back home Evina Westbrook (Salem, OR) received a genuine and lengthy salute from the crowd. But the senior slumped as well, finishing 3 of 10 with three turnovers.
Missed shots? The Huskies had seven from beyond the arc before Westbrook connected in the first minute of the third quarter. They finished 3 for 18.
Turnovers? Nineteen, and Auriemma gave all of them a life of their own after the game.
“We stopped scoring, turned the ball over, they scored. Now we’re coming down and throwing the ball away and missing shots. That’s a really really bad combination… really bad,” he said. “Nineteen times we crossed half court and didn’t get a shot at the basket. I don’t know how you beat really good teams doing that.”
“We can’t have that happen, especially in big games like this,” said Olivia Nelson-Udoda. “When things aren’t going well, just pushing through that wall. I think that’s our biggest struggle right now as a team.”