During its annual nationwide tour – which occasionally includes the Virgin Islands – women’s basketball power band plays venues large enough to hold concerts and the circus.
But once in a while, especially in the quaint Northeast, UConn plays in old-school atmospheres that conjure images of Chuck Taylor sneakers and short shorts.
Think Gene Hackman as Geno Auriemma. Difficult, but not impossible.
Saturday, the clock turns back once more when the No. 2 Huskies (9-0) play Hartford for the first time in the Chase Family Arena, whose capacity (4,017) will be bursting at the seams.
For just the 13th time, the first since the opening-round of the NCAA Tournament in 2011, the first in the regular season since 2009, the Huskies and the Hawks will play.
And you know what that means? The mentor (Auriemma) and the student-teacher (Jen Rizzotti) will be back in business, forever together historically, but temporarily apart professionally.
“With Jen [and Hartford] it may be different [because of their relationship],” said Auriemma about the series rest stop. “With other programs you can probably say ‘Take it or leave it. Do you want to play or not? This is the way it’s going to be.’
“But I told Jen from the start, whenever you want to play let me know. And whenever you don’t to play, let me know that, too. It’s up to you. We took a couple of years off, but when she suggested that we should play again, I said sure. But she said, ‘I want you to play at our place.’
“I said, ‘Why not.’ It’s hard for Hartford to get any of the Top 5 programs in the nation to play her there. Now, she can say it has and their fans and players can experience what it will feel like.
“Jen is a smart, tough kid. She wants to get some things on her side. She figures we’ve already played at Gampel and the Civic Center. I just want to get a shot at our place [Chase].
“So two Italians came to a good deal; once at their place, once at XL Center and 72 times at Gampel Pavilion.”
The Huskies are rolling, fresh off a 72-point win over Oakland that featured a program-record 40 three-point attempts and matching 21-point performances by Bria Hartley and Breanna Stewart.
Of course, Rizzotti need not to turn to game film to know what those two are about, or Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck
They all played for Rizzotti on the U19 team that won gold for USA Basketball. Kiah Stokes and Moriah Jefferson tried out for the team, but did not make it.
Neither Tuck (bruised knee) or Stokes (stress reaction) will play Saturday. They also missed the Oakland game and Stokes is already listed as doubtful for Stanford (Dec. 29) and Oregon (Dec. 31).
“I’m not surprised at any of their successes. I think one of the unique things about the kids I’ve had the pleasure of coaching, including Maya [Moore] and Tina [Charles], is that as much as people think UConn chose them, they very much have to chose to play for him, in that environment and under that kind of microscope,” Rizzotti said.
“As much as people think, ‘Oh, why would you not want to play at UConn?’, there’s a lot of reasons. Because it’s not easy. It’s not just 10,000 people watching you play all the time. It’s a lot of hard work. And it’s a lot of intensity; playing for somebody who expects perfection. Their drive and their decision to want that every single day makes them special.
“So it doesn’t surprise me, after having experiences with them and seeing how they approach every day and every practice, that they would not only choose to go there but to go there and be very successful.”
Those who prepped for UConn under Rizzotti valued the opportunity to learn from her.
“I enjoyed my chance to be coached by her,” Stewart said. “It gave me an opportunity to learn more about the college game, since I was still in high school at the time. It helped me gain somewhat of a realization about what the college game would be like. It was a great experience for me.”
Not only did their time with Rizzotti help them learn how practice, college-style, it provided a little insight into Auriemma, who they would spend the next four years with.
“She was a lot like coach. You could tell how much she likely took from him,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “She’s one of those coaches who expect perfection, who wants you to do things the way she tells you to do them. And and if it’s not done that way, then you better figure it out how to do it.
“Once I got to Connecticut I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is so much like Coach Rizzotti.’”
Of course, not everything about Rizzotti was exactly like Auriemma.
“Her coaching style is just about the same; really pushing you to work hard in practice and play hard in games,” Dolson said. “She yelled a lot, just like coach does. But she doesn’t do the hair swipe [with a hand] like he does.”
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