Playing for Geno Auriemma is not easy. And it shouldn’t be, or so say those who fully subscribe to the risk-reward theory of finding success.
But that’s not really the point now, while the state celebrates his record ninth women’s basketball championship.
“It means we’ve done something that no one else has ever done,” Auriemma said. “So you’re flattered and you’re grateful and you’re all the things that come with this kind of accomplishment. Of course. That’s not the driving force. That’s not what motivates us at Connecticut.”
The point is playing for him seems more than worth it to the players who migrate from cities and suburbs to run through walls, metaphorical and otherwise, for him.
You could see that in the UConn locker room after Tuesday’s 79-58 win over the Notre Dame in the national championship game in Nashville.
There mingling with the current players were representatives of generations past; Kalana Greene, Tina Charles, Mel Thomas, Cassie Kerns and Asjha Jones.
“What I will remember about him is his straightforwardness and his sarcasm,” Stefanie Dolson said. “I remember how he once stopped practice when I was a freshman. I had just grabbed a rebound. He took out a piece of paper and put it on the court. And then he said, you just jumped over that to get the rebound.”
Four years later, Dolson ran into his arms for one final time after the scoring 17 points with 16 rebounds and seven assist to help the Huskies complete the fifth unbeaten season (40-0) in their history.
She made leap, all right, from doughty freshman to one of the biggest prime-time players in school history, a two-time All-American who ended her stay as its fourth-leading career rebounder.
The key to Auriemma’s success, and of the primary factors of the success this team enjoyed, is his ceaseless dedication to repetition and perfection that helped create it.
“We try to do the right thing for the people that are there,” Auriemma said. “If it means winning a national championship, great.”
Auriemma does not see he players as women’s basketball players. He views them asexually; as athletes, hopefully interested in achieving as much as they can. So he does not treat them as girls. He pushes them as relentlessly as any men’s coach pushes their players.
If the Huskies work hard in practice, it’s because Auriemma and his staff want every movement committed to muscle memory, whether its floor spacing or screen setting or the precision way the team cut to the basket and found the open man.
“He knows what we wants,” guard Moriah Jefferson said. “And he knows what he is doing. He’s been coaching for so many years (29), so we really pay attention to anything he says. He always does a great job preparing us.”
And during this perfect season, the team’s execution was practically perfect in every way as it rolled to 40 double-digit victories that spanned from 11 (66-55 over Baylor) to 61 (102-41 over SMU).
All five starters averaged double-figure scoring and the program set an NCAA record for blocked shots (324). It held its opponents to just 47.8 points and a shooting percentage of just 31.0.
It assisted on 850 of its 1,251 field goals while picking off 375 steals.
Sophomore Breanna Stewart was an unanimous choice to the Associated Press All-America team and a WBCA and USWBA All-American. She won the Naismith and the AP’s player of the year and was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player for the second straight season.
Senior Bria Hartley fought back from a injury-plagued junior season to become a WBCA All-American again, just as she had as a sophomore. She was a model of consistency down the stretch and ended her career just six points of 2,000 points but the program’s all-time leader in minutes played.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis missed eight games with an elbow injury and four with mononucleosis but may have been UConn’s most consistently productive play at the Lincoln Regional and Final Four.
And sophomore Moriah Jefferson literally shot herself from a cannon, using her speed, defensive relentlessness and confident way to control games with both the ball in her hands and making sure it didn’t get in the hands of others.
“I knew from the beginning of the season that we were going to have a great team and that we had a lot of talent and a lot of potential,” Dolson said. “And coming to this tournament I knew this team had both mine and Bria’s back. Coach really emphasized with them kind of sending their seniors off with the right note.
“And I couldn’t have asked for better teammates my senior year. We had a ton of fun this year. I’m proud to be with these girls, and I thank them every minute of that game that they helped me get the national championship my senior year.”
These starters made up for the lack of consistent bench strength. Auriemma comfortably turned to just junior Kiah Stokes to rest his starters in the posteseason. And Stokes, often frustratingly laconic, produced in a big way in Nashville, even offensively.
“The only person that can keep her from scoring his herself,” assistant coach Chris Dailey said.
The Huskies toyed with their competition in the first season of the American Athletic Conference, winning all 18 games by an average of 37.4 points. They the swept through their three games in the conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena by a cumulative 76 points.
The beat the 12 ranked teams they played in the regular season by an average of 22.6. Then beat Prairie View, St. Joseph’s, BYU and Texas A&M in Storrs and Lincoln to reach the Final Four.
Then they battered Stanford, 75-56, in the national semifinals, setting the stage for the first title game between undefeated teams in NCAA basketball history. It was no contest; the Huskies won the rebounding battle (54-31) and outscored the undermanned Irish in the paint (52-22) to close out perfection.
“You come to Connecticut knowing you want to compete for the national championship every year,” Hartley said. “That’s the standard we have for ourselves. The fact we’ve [the seniors] to come to four straight is pretty awesome.”
Next year’s team, like every new team, will have his own personality quirks and traits. Dolson and Hartley will be in the WNBA; Mosqueda-Lewis, Stokes and Brianna Banks its senior leadership.
Morgan Tuck, whose season ended with knee surgery in January after just eight games, is expected to return as a sophomore to help bolster a front line that will be anchored by Stewart, Stokes and Mosqueda-Lewis, who showed improved rebounding acumen down the stretch.
The team will be joined by four freshman guards; Courtney Ekmark, Sadie Edwards, Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams. Williams is recovering from her second ACL surgery in March, but expects to be ready for the start of practice.
And on Wednesday, UConn will learn if A’ja Wilson, a 6-3 forward, a McDonald’s All-American and the nation’s highest ranking uncommitted player, will chose it over North Carolina, Tennessee or her home school, South Carolina.
Regardless, it will be Auriemma there directing him, fresh off another run with USA Basketball at the World Championship in Turkey, a team Stewart has a great chance to make.
And 2014-15 will be another tough run, just like it always is. But really, there is no place Auriemma would rather be.
“Well, we’re just like a lot of people; when you figure out that you can do something really well, and you start doing it really well right where you are, why would you go somewhere else?,” Auriemma’s wife, Kathy, said. “He might have gone somewhere else if he really felt like he needed to. But he never has.
“He kept recruiting great kids that he looked forward to coaching. And frankly, he began to think, ‘Who am I willing to leave?’ You would always be leaving someone and he gets attached to his players. How could you not?”