Since he was raised in general proximity to the campus, and often exudes personality trails aligned with those who hang out there on game night, Geno Auriemma understands what motivates the Rutgers women’s basketball fan.
“People are giving Governor Christie [New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie] a hard time [over the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal],” Auriemma said. “He’s just a product of his environment. If he was from Philadelphia, everyone would just say, ‘So what’s the big deal?’”
Precisely. And Auriemma knows this because 13 times since 1996, when the Scarlet Knights joined the Big East, he has brought his team to the Rutgers Athletic Center to play.
“You walk into the gym and it’s a bit old school,” Stefanie Dolson said. “It does not have a lot of the glitz and glam like the new arenas do. And the fans are sitting there close to you. They heckle you and say things. It makes it fun, challenging, kind of different place to play.”
As a result, Auriemma has often brought a program that hardly ever loses home with a loss.
But Sunday may be the last time he visits when No. 1 UConn plays No. 23 Rutgers at the RAC.
“Whenever you play a really good team that challenges you, you will miss the challenge,” Auriemma said. “It’s not to say we won’t ever play them again. I don’t think that decision has been made or ever will be made. But having an opponent that challenges you, in an environment that is as difficult to succeed in as that one [the RAC]? That’s something you look for. You seek them.”
Now together in the American Athletic Conference, Rutgers leaves for the Big Ten next season with no promise – or contract – to play UConn in the regular season after their game March 1 at Gampel Pavilion.
And after this season, Hall of Famer Vivian Stringer may not be the Rutgers coach. Her contract expires after this season and it seems unlikely the new athletic administration is going to want to offer her another big money deal.
And in terms of theatre, that also will be a big loss for the sport. And the fans who feed it.
“Their fans are really into the game,” Bria Hartley said. “They are loud. But we [the players] usually are able to get into a zone during the game and tune it out.”
Auriemma gets to hear it all, especially when he walks in at the start or stands to contest a call.
“The overriding thing about playing at Rutgers is that their fans always wanted their team to be as good as our team,” Auriemma said. “Their fans always wanted Rutgers to compete for a national championship, a Big East championship. And we were always the ones that got in the way. So just because of that we were the enemy.”
This season looks no different. The Huskies (18-0, 5-0) are on another roll. They have won 24 straight and are coming off a stressful, yet satisfying 11-point win at Baylor last Monday.
Rutgers (13-3, 4-1) is good again. But it just had a nine-game winning streak snapped last week in overtime at Memphis, a team UConn toyed with on Jan. 3 at FedEx Forum.
So it’s likely the emotion of the fan base will be peaked again.
“Had we not been any good, had we not been who we are did what we have done, we would not have had any of those issues,” Auriemma said. “But because of what we represent, which I think is something the Rutgers fan desperately wants, it’s natural.
“But how some of them go about expressing themselves, well, I think it’s in keeping with being a native of New Jersey.”
This game begins the 13-game conference stretch drive for the Huskies taking them to The American’s first postseason tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena. And as well as they’ve played, with six wins over Top 25 teams, there is always work to do.
UConn will again be without sophomore Morgan Tuck. She will miss her third straight game, and 11th of the season, with right knee soreness. Rutgers, while playing stout defense again, also is playing a more wide-open offensive style this season.
Senior Bria Hartley may also feel the impact of a jammed left thumb suffered in practice Friday. Her play was one of the highlights of the Rutgers win, fueled by a halftime scolding from Auriemma after making four turnovers in the first half.
“I don’t know,” Hartley said. “People have always said I play better when I am angry. I have more aggressive mentality. And I think coach knows that, which is why he challenges me all the time.”
Rutgers’ leading scorer, Kahleah Copper, and Tyler Scaife, the freshman guard, each had 20-point games at Memphis. Copper leads RU in scoring and field goal percentage. And junior Betnijah Laney, once a UConn recruit, is averaging a double-double (13.4 points, 10.4 rebounds). She has scored double figures 11 times in 14 games, recording nine double-doubles in that span.