Some time after her emotional embrace with Geno Auriemma on the floor of the New Orleans Arena Monday, UConn’s Kelly Faris, her distinguished career now complete, tossed a tease into the mosh pit of media seated below her.
A question had dealt with improbability of her team’s about-face in the aftermath of its loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament championship game, the third defeat to the Irish this season.
How could it be that a team shouldering so much disappointment a month earlier learned to dance and sing in a shower of confetti after winning its eighth national championship by beating Louisville, 93-60?
“We sat in the locker room [after the Notre Dame loss] and he [Auriemma] looked at us and he said, ‘You know what? When we get back together, I’m going to show you how to win a national championship.’ And, sure enough, we’re sitting right here,” Faris said.
“There’s times I don’t know how the heck he does what he does, but he’s pretty darn good at his job and he figures out a way to get it done. And happy to have him on my side.”
Faris was asked a follow-up: What exactly Auriemma had done to make the six-game winning streak occur.
“He might want to keep that a secret. I don’t know.” Faris said. “I’ll let him answer that one.”
And with that, just the second player in UConn history to score over 1,000 points, get over 750 rebounds, throw over 500 assists and pick at least 250 steals walked off the dais into her new life as a WNBA player.
Whatever Auriemma said, it has benefitted generations of players before Faris. The Huskies are 8-0 in national championship games and this one tied Auriemma will his longtime rival, Tennessee’s Pat Summitt.
“On ESPN they put up a list of John Wooden, Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not the way it works. That’s not the way it works.’ I never beat Coach K in a game, and I never coached against Coach Wooden. So the only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt. And to be there in that spot with her means a lot to me.”
But whatever he said, suggested, implied or subliminal conveyed stirred the spirit of this team, one racked with nagging injuries and lingering insecurities as it headed into its first-round NCAA game against Idaho.
“I thought for a large part of this season there were too many times our team was feeling the pressure to win,; are we good enough, what if we don’t live up to other people’s expectations. And a lot of that has to do with me and our coaching staff. Too many times at practice they didn’t live up to our expectations – usually mine.
“And it got to a point where I could sense it; I could feel it that it was holding us back. And as soon as the Big East championship game ended, I sat down with our coaches and I said all that’s going to change starting right now. I tried to make them feel like all that stuff’s behind us now. There’s 64 teams going into the NCAA Tournament. And a lot of them that think they can win it.
“But we’re Connecticut. And we go into the NCAA with a different mindset than everybody else. And they’re so young, the dummies, they believed me.”
The impact of this philosophical turnover was personified in the renaissance of freshman Breanna Stewart, Auriemma’s latest prodigy. After missing the Idaho game with a sore calf, she broke from the pack against Vanderbilt in round two and lapped the nation in New Orleans.
Stewie scored 29 in the semifinal win over Notre Dame, 23 against Louisville. She scored 105 points in the five games, the most by any first-year player since 2000. Maya Moore has held the record with 93. And in the end, she was the first freshman named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in a quarter-century, just the fourth ever.
“I appreciate it. I mean, it’s nice,” Stewart said. “But, still, we just won a national championship, and I think that’s the best thing. I just played confidently and stopped thinking. When I second-guess myself, nothing good comes out of that.”
And she said it with the oh-gosh smile that has come to exemplify her personality.
“She’s really, really innocent and in so many ways,” Auriemma said. “She has a little kid’s attitude towards everything that happens. She sees the fun and the joy in everything, and that’s why I’m really thrilled for her, because there were times this year where all that went away, and I was really, really worried about her.
“And she got it back and she got it back just in time, and here we are.”
And where they go next will likely have a lot to do with Stewart and All-Americans Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson, two pillars in UConn’s pod. And Bria Hartley, who will be a senior like Dolson, will likely be fully recovered, mentally and physically, from the bum ankle that plagued her from August to April.
UConn’s 2013-14 team, no longer with Faris, Heather Buck and Caroline Doty, will welcome freshman guard Saniya Chong, a WBCA All-American guard and prolific high school scorer from Ossining, N.Y. And it will play another ambitious non-conference schedule in a new conference.
“Right now, I’m really anxious for next year to start because I want to see what Bria Hartley looks like and I want to see what Stefanie Dolson looks like as seniors, because they’ve been in the middle of this since their freshmen year,” Auriemma said. “And for them to finally be seniors next year, I think it’s probably going to be pretty exciting for me.”
And as for Faris, who worked so hard and worried so much about her team and her teammates, she can leave now knowing winning her title was always a part of the plan. She awaited her arrival with simple survival.
“I don’t think people understand how much we needed her to get to this point,” Faris said. If we didn’t have [Stewart] we wouldn’t be here. And we all know that, and I hope she knows that. If she didn’t turn it around and step up like she has; I mean, we have a freshman that’s the MVP of the national championship game. And that doesn’t happen anywhere but here.
“And she deserves it. And I’m glad she’s on our side. I wouldn’t want to be playing against her.”