Everything’s Different, Geno’s the Same: 37 years later, Connecticut’s Auriemma still pursuing titles

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 stoicism 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.

“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 prognosis, 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 19 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.”

Cardinal Season Comes to an End, Losses to Connecticut in National Semi-Finals

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

By: Joe Lami

The Stanford Cardinal played their final game of the 2013-2014 season on Sunday night after they were defeated by Connecticut 75-56 in Nashville.  The Cardinal were seeking their third National Championship in school history and their first one since 1992, however they fell short in their sixth trip to the final four in the past seven years.  Sunday also marks the third time in four years that the Cardinal have fallen in the National Semi-Final.

The Cardinal controlled much of the first half.  The Huskies got on the board first with buckets from Bria Hartley and Moriah Jefferson to go up 4-0.  Chiney Ogwumike got on the board first for the Cardinal with a jumper of her own.  Connecticut would get the lead back up to four, until Stanford went on a 7-0 run to give them their first lead of the evening with 16:09 remaining in the half.  The Cardinal held the lead for 12 minutes until Stephanie Dolson tied it up at 22 with four minutes remaining.  The 12 minutes marked the longest stretch of time this season that Connecticut had trailed.  Stanford pushed their largest lead to six, marking the second highest lead a team had on Connecticut all season.  The Huskies continued their run, extending it to 14-0 before Stanford was able to answer with a bucket of their own.  UConn went into the half with a 28-24 lead.

Stanford fell apart in the second half, as Connecticut started the second half with a 5:46 16-3 run.  The three points came from a rare three-pointer from Ogwumike.  The run would be give enough of a lead for UConn to ride out the win.  The Cardinal wouldn’t be able to fight their way back.

Amber Orrange led the way for the Cardinal with 16 points, she also added five assists in the losing effort.  Ogwumike wrapped up her Stanford career with her 25th double double of the season, as the expected 1st overall pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft finished the game with 15 points and ten rebounds.  Lili Thompson wrapped up the double figure Cardinal scorers with 12 points, eight of which came in the first half.

The Huskies saw all five of their starters get into double figures.  Player of the Year nominee, Brianna Stewart led the way with 18 points.  Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis contributed 15 points, all of which came in the second half.  Hartley shot four of 12 from the field to finish with 14 points.  Both Jefferson and Dolson finished the game with ten points each to cap off the double digits scorers.  Kiah Stokes also came off of the bench to add nine points in 22 minutes played, as the Huskies used only six players in 39-minutes of the game.  In the last minute, substitutes Saniya Chong, Tierney Lawlor, Briana Pulido and Brianna Banks replaced the starting five.

Connecticut remains undefeated at 39-0 and advance to their school’s ninth National Championship.  Next up for the Huskies is another undefeated team in Notre Dame (37-0), who beat Maryland 81-67 in the other National Semi-Final game.  Tuesday will mark the first time ever, where two undefeated teams will battle it out for the National Title.  Connecticut also joins their men’s team in the National Championship, as the men’s team will be going up against Kentucky for the men’s title.  Both Connecticut team’s won the title in 2004, and have a chance to do it again just ten years later.  They remain the only school to accomplish the feat.

Stanford finishes their season with a record of 30-4 and some uncertainty in next season, as it will be the first one since 2008 where an Ogwumike will not be on the team.