During a supersized 25-minute press conference following Tuesday’s 83-61 win over No. 2 Duke, UConn coach Geno Auriemma was asked many questions, most from those who don’t get the chance to see him very often.
It’s sessions like these that tend to be remarkably insightful. Auriemma understands the audience is new and interested and his comments are likely to reach those unacquainted about and curious with his program.
And they multiply intuitively when held in places that aspire to do what he has done; and No. 2 Duke, losers of four straight Elite Eight games and seven straight games to UConn, fits that description better than just about any program in the nation right now.
One of the questions on the tail end of the session dealt with his coaching style, how he knows when to aggressively coach and when to pull back on the reigns that he has manipulated so masterfully during his 29 seasons.
During the preamble to the game, played before a sellout at Cameron Indoor Stadium, he had alluded to how he likes his teams to focus on themselves, almost to the complete exclusion of the opponent.
Against teams like St. Bonaventure and Boston University, that strategy seemed understandable. But Duke, like UConn, had four players in the Top 50 in the country, according to the Naismith Award watch list.
How do you ignore that?
“A kid sitting at home watching us play on television in these kind of games, who decides they want to play here, can’t come here and start thinking, ‘Oh my God, this on 1 vs. 2. This is Cameron Indoor Stadium. How am I going to handle it?,” Auriemma said.
“The kid that comes to Connecticut understands this is why they came here; to play in these kinds of games. But then it’s up to the coaching staff to set the right mindset.
“There have been times when I’ve coached in these games not convinced we had the best team. And because of that, I over-coached by diving too deeply into a game plan. It’s possible to over-coach, you know. We try to under-coach games like this, let the players decide what kind of game it’s going to be.”
Auriemma says he tries to have his players imagine playing in a gymnasium with no spectators, coaches, referees or media present. The idea is allow them to eliminate every external distraction possible so they can focus solely on what they do and how they do it.
“It’s just our 10 against your 10,” Auriemma said. “Who would win? Let’s go play and see who wins. … As long as we can get them to believe that crap [we will be successful].”
Against Duke, his players took care of their problems, especially Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who returned after more than a month on the sideline with an injured elbow.
Whenever Duke got close, she made sure to add more insulation by burying three-pointers until she had seven of them.
“She is a shooter,” Duke’s Haley Peters said. “She’s a good shooter.”
Embodied in the play of sophomore Breanna Stewart (24 points, 11 rebounds), senior Stefanie Dolson (14 points, nine rebounds and six assists) and others was the evidence that sometime physical talent does trump tactical preparation.
“We didn’t have the mental focus to get the job done,” Duke guard Chelsea Gray said. “We never like to lose. We didn’t do what I expected us to do.”
And now at 11-0, with 17 straight wins dating to last year’s NCAA Tournament, UConn is on pace to pursue a ninth national championship relatively unencumbered by the minutiae even a well-intended scouting report can create.
“You know what helps me is we have two coaches [assistants] on our staff [Chris Dailey and Shea Ralph] and all I can say is, I don’t know what General Eisenhower’s plans looked liked for D-Day, but will bet they weren’t as complete as what these guys put into a scouting report,” Auriemma said.
“Sometimes I look at them and say ‘You guys must be kidding me?’ You can get so overloaded with information about every facet that if you’re not careful your kids can go into a game far too overloaded with information about how to stop them – as opposed to what do we have to do to win the game or be really good.
“It’s all about simplifying things and getting everyone’s mind right.”
And next on the list is California, the 2013 Final Four team. The Huskies play them Sunday at Madison Square Garden in the second game of the Maggie Dixon Classic.
And as for Duke?
“It’s a lesson,” Coach Joanne P. McCallie said.