Geno Auriemma said nothing was different about the plane ride home from South Bend, Ind., last week, nothing that would distinguish it from any other postgame flight.
“Every flight home, especially when it’s late, is the same,” Auriemma said. “The guys are either studying or they are asleep. The coaches were watching film. There wasn’t much difference coming home from there.
“I’m sure it was different inside for them. But outwardly, it didn’t appear to be different at all.”
Other than the trip followed the first triple-overtime game in UConn history. Other than it ended in another defeat to Notre Dame. Other than it cost the Huskies the first seed in this final Big East tournament.
“We were all upset, angry and disappointed about how we played and how it [the game] played out,” said Stefanie Dolson of UConn’s 96-87 loss. “A lot of us couldn’t sleep because we were thinking about the game. We were thinking about all of the scenarios that could have happened and did happen.”
That’s all in the past, or one would assume. There is a new scenario to consider. The Huskies (27-3) have a new challenge. They open play Sunday at the XL Center as the No. 2 seed in the final Big East tournament they will ever play.
If they win they’ll advance to Monday’s semifinal game. If they win that, the chance for an 18th conference tournament title awaits Monday.
But as UConn prepares for one last walk down sentimental street, Auriemma says the public pressure his program faces, to succeed at everything, sometime weighs it down more than most suspect.
“The great thing about coaching at UConn is that we’re used to winning every game and winning those that come down to the wire,” Auriemma said. And we have not done that is some instances lately.
“The bad thing about coaching at UConn is that the other team is not allowed to win. And if they win, it’s only because we played badly. I’ve never heard anyone say to me after a loss, ‘Hey, you know what, those guys are really good.’ I don’t think it’s happened in 15 years.”
With two Big East first-team players, Kaeena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stef Dolson, and its defender of the year, Kelly Faris, UConn has been too much to handle for all, with the exception of the two programs most believe they must be to win an eighth national championship.
No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Notre Dame against whom the Huskies are 0-3.
“If you are a player or a coach at UConn, that’s the world we live in,” Auriemma said. “We are not allowed to lose. The other team is not allowed to win [and get credit] because if they win it’s because UConn stunk.
“And I don’t think anyone has any idea what that [mindset] does to a player and their psyche. Just think about that. They play in the only place in the country where you are not allowed to lose – ever, even to the top two teams in the country, even if it’s by one at home or in triple overtime [on the road] and by six to the defending national champion [Baylor]. It’s just not acceptable.
“Does it wear on the players? What do you think? I am not complaining. I am just stating fact. It’s the world we’ve created here. I don’t know what I can do about it. It is what it is.”
UConn enters the Big East with Faris nursing a sprained left foot, suffered on the final play of the first half Monday night at Notre Dame.
“They [the training staff] has asked me to be patient with it,” Faris said. “But [compiling] has been a pain in the butt for me.”
Auriemma said he wasn’t what her availability would be on Sunday.
“It’s not 100 percent [that she will play], but it’s a good probability,” he said. “So much of getting Kelly through it is being able to manage it, doing the rehab that she is going to have to do. She played the entire second half [53 of 55 minutes] with it and I am sure it hurt like hell. But with the right about of exercise and rehab she will be fine. Whether she’s 100 percent, that I don’t know.”
The Huskies, especially their guards, also need to do a better job handling the ball.
“That’s one area [the backcourt] that don’t think we’ve been really, really good this year,” Auriemma said.
The team committed an uncharacteristic 35 turnovers at Notre Dame.
“How do fix that? Well, if we were averaging 35 turnovers I would say it’s unfixable. But we average only 14 [14.4] so what happened Monday was not normal for us. There were reasons why it happened, but it’s not like it’s a trend.
“So many of them were mindless, some unexplainable. How do improve? Work on the things you are good at and pay more attention as a player to every pass you throw. If we had 34 turnovers we might have won. In fact, if we had 37 turnovers we still might have won the way it played out.”