- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
NEW ORLEANS -- To understand just how great eight was for the victorious Connecticut women's basketball team Tuesday night, let's go back to how it began here in the Crescent City 22 years ago. Geno Auriemma was still kind of an "upstart" coach then, trying to establish UConn as a factor on the national scene.
Well, at least the Final Four part started in New Orleans. It was Auriemma's sixth year coaching in Storrs, Conn., and the Huskies had broken through to the season's last weekend in 1991. They played Virginia, for which Auriemma had previously been an assistant coach, and lost in the semifinals.
"We almost carried ourselves like ... we didn't belong here," Auriemma said. "When we left and we didn't win, I thought, 'What if we never go back?'"
But, in truth, the die was already cast. It would take four more seasons and the rock-star popularity of Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti to elevate UConn to a mega-program. The Huskies won their first NCAA title in 1995. And they've actually never been out of the mix to win it all since.
UConn claimed title No. 8 on Tuesday, the second to come at the expense of Louisville. The score in this one was 93-60, the most points the Huskies have ever compiled in a final. The gutsy No. 5 seed Cardinals at last ran into a giant they couldn't topple.
The Huskies displayed so many weapons -- led by Final Four most outstanding player Breanna Stewart -- and looked so dominant Tuesday, you almost could have forgotten they weren't the overall No. 1 seed or the favorite coming into the Big Dance. That was defending champion Baylor, but the Cardinals' upset of the Lady Bears in the Sweet 16 changed the whole complexion of the tournament.
UConn and Auriemma have now tied Tennessee and former coach Pat Summitt for the most NCAA championships in women's basketball.
"Congratulations to Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies on a remarkable season and an eighth national title," Summitt said in a statement released by her son, Tyler. "Geno is a proven champion and a leader in our game. My best to him, his family, his team and staff."
Summitt's eighth and final title came in 2008. She announced in the summer of 2011 that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. After leading Tennessee one last season, she moved into a head coach emeritus role last spring, ending her career with 1,098 victories.
Auriemma made a large donation to the Pat Summitt Foundation, and the two longtime adversaries shared a conversation and a hug at last year's Final Four in Denver. The animus between them -- two titans of their business who had gone head-to-head in recruiting star players and competing on the floor for so many years -- appeared over.
But that likely won't ever be the case with Tennessee and UConn fans, who can't stand each other. Next year's Final Four is in Nashville, Tenn., and you can bet Lady Vols devotees would rather see Earth colonized by rabid aliens who ban country music than see Auriemma win a ninth title on Tennessee soil.
Yet with the likes of Stewart (who had 23 points and nine rebounds Tuesday), Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson all returning, the Huskies seem sure to be the preseason No. 1 for 2013-14.
And maybe the graciousness with which Auriemma addressed tying Summitt's title record could be accepted graciously by Tennessee fans.
"On ESPN, they put up a list of John Wooden, Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp. I'm like, 'That's not the way it works,'" Auriemma said. "I never beat Coach K. I never coached against Coach Wooden. The only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt. And to be in that spot with her means a lot to me."
Tennessee and UConn haven't met since Summitt ended the series in 2007. But the hot-burning rivalry between the two was good for both programs, as well as women's basketball as a whole. Each forced the other to raise the bar, and they both raised the sport while doing so.
On Tuesday, the Huskies' latest superstar, Stewart, finished out a brilliant NCAA tournament. It ranked with dynamic rookie performances we've seen from the likes of Southern Cal's Cheryl Miller in 1983 and Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw in 1996, both of whom also won NCAA titles as freshmen.
If you think Stewie Griffin on "Family Guy" is a diabolical youngster, just check out what UConn's "Stewie" does to people on the basketball court.
"When I saw Stewie play in high school and USA Basketball," Auriemma said, "all I could think of was, 'What's she going to be like when she's in college and learns how to play and fills into her body and gets a lot smarter?'"
Stewart is still doing all of that, and the answer is she's going to be a nightmare for the rest of the country's teams for the next three seasons. Then look out, WNBA.
But as happily as it all ended Tuesday for UConn, the Huskies shed real tears this season -- especially when they lost the Big East championship game to Notre Dame on their de facto home court in Hartford, Conn. Hartley, a WBCA All-American last year, was injured and had moments of doubt this season.
Stewart -- who came into the season having to live up to being called possibly the best player in UConn history even before her first college game -- had her growing pains.
For a senior such as Kelly Faris, who knew what perfection was like in 2009-10, it was enormously frustrating.
"There were times that I was mad at the world for the way that things were going and the fact that I couldn't figure out how to make it work," Faris said. "After the Big East tournament loss, we sat in the locker room, and [Auriemma] looked at us. And he said, 'When we get back together [at practice], I'm going to show you how to win a national championship.'"
Who knows that better than he does? Auriemma, though, actually did go through his own struggles. Three losses to Notre Dame ate at him and convinced him that folks were doubting him.
Connecticut has something that is still relatively rare in women's hoops: a passionate, large, involved fan base. That means there is no shortage of rumormongers, conspiracy theorists and self-proclaimed coaching experts -- all with their eyes trained on the Huskies' every move.
Auriemma would be best to simply ignore that annoyingly noisy peanut gallery, but that's much easier said than done. It can get under his skin.
Yet that's also something that motivates him. The old adage "He who laughs last, laughs best" is made for Auriemma. So many times against so many challengers, he's the one who has gotten the last laugh.
Including winning in all eight NCAA finals in which UConn has played: 1995, 2000, '02, '03, '04, '09, '10 and '13.
"I've said this before: I really believe that coaches lose more championship games than they win," Auriemma said. "You don't have your team ready for whatever reason, mentally usually. I've been in the Final Four a couple of times where we've lost, and mentally we weren't right. But we've never been in a championship game where mentally we weren't right. That's something I'm really proud of."
The Huskies were the No. 1 seed in the Bridgeport Regional and plowed through their four games, making it look easy to get to the Big Easy. This is the third time the women's Final Four has been in New Orleans, and UConn has made it all three times.
The last one was in 2004, the year before the horrors of Hurricane Katrina so devastatingly affected this city. Diana Taurasi won the last of her three NCAA titles here nine years ago, and people then probably couldn't imagine anyone possibly challenging her in the pantheon of Huskies greats.
But Maya Moore came along in 2007 and gave it a run, winning NCAA titles with two perfect seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Like Sue Bird and Taurasi before her, Moore went to the WNBA as the No. 1 pick, in 2011. And now Stewart will try to top even Taurasi and win four titles.
Is it ridiculous to pile that on a teenager? Yes, but she's at a program that creates those kinds of expectations. Since the NCAA championship breakthrough in 1995, UConn really has been a contender to win it all every season.
"With each year that goes by and teams get knocked out that everybody thinks are national championship teams," Auriemma said, "I feel even better about what we've done."
The 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons were hard for the Huskies because they "only" made the Final Four, where they were defeated in the semifinals. This season, UConn ascended to No. 1 in the rankings when Baylor was upset by Stanford in November, but then a loss to Notre Dame in January took the Huskies out of that top spot. They never got it back in the Associated Press poll, but now it's clear how little that ever mattered.
In Sunday's semifinals, the Huskies controlled the game in beating Notre Dame. And with a championship meeting against a Louisville team the Huskies had defeated soundly during the regular season, there truly wasn't any suspense Tuesday.
UConn led by 10 midway through the first half and never looked back from there. For the Cardinals, trying to find a good look at the basket against UConn was about as easy as finding a parking space on the White House lawn.
Louisville did end up somehow scoring 60 points on 37.1 percent shooting. Considering how overwhelming the Huskies looked, that actually seemed not so bad.
But it was not nearly enough to make a game of it. UConn has obliterated all traces of drama in big games many times before, including when the Huskies beat Louisville 76-54 in the 2009 title game.
"They played as well as I've seen them play this entire year tonight," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
Would this Final Four have played out any differently had Baylor -- which was the other team to beat UConn this season besides Notre Dame -- made it to the championship game? Maybe, but it doesn't matter. The Huskies were here, and the Lady Bears were not.
The Big East as we know it is busting up, and that league's women's basketball Godzilla, UConn, gave the conference a last hurrah Tuesday.
Next season, the Huskies will be part of something called the American Athletic Conference. And other than making some road trips that will seem quite odd for a UConn league game (Houston? Dallas? Memphis?), you can expect that it will be business as usual for the Huskies.
"Right now, I'm pretty anxious for next year to start," Auriemma said.
But he and the Huskies should take at least a little time to truly relish this title. Even though you can be sure that when it comes to UConn, eight still won't be enough.
"This last month has been everything and more that I could ever hope for with this team and these players," Auriemma said. "They deserve this."
17dBonnie D. Ford