If UConn players and coaches feel at times that whatever they’ve accomplished doesn’t seem quite enough you can excuse them. It just may be true.
Consider that Saturday’s 105-37 romp over Idaho in the first round of the NCAA’s Bridgeport Regional was UConn’s 30th win this season. The Huskies have now won at least 30 for a record eighth-straight season.
Still, the game lured just 4,627 fans to Gampel Pavilion, the smallest crowd for a campus game since March 1994.
“It [the wins] just becomes numbers,’’ Auriemma said. “Right now, the only thing that matters at UConn is `are you going to win the national championship?’ The fact that we’ve won 30 games 18 out of the last 20 years, well, I don’t think anybody gives a [darn] about that. Because if they did there would’ve been tremendous excitement leading up to today’s game. `Wow, come watch Coach Auriemma and UConn win 30 games for the 18th time in 20 years.’
“So, obviously, that was way under the radar. So right now it’s about winning national championships at Connecticut. And unless somebody reminds you, you really kind of forget about the numbers. But when people remind you it’s pretty staggering I think.’’
For his players, the difficult part comes with the demands made of them to maintain their focus, even in the midst of 68-point wins like Saturday’s. There is always something to learn, something to gain.
“Establishing mini-goals for the team is about making good decisions you incorporate into the game at various points,” Auriemma said. “The idea is to keep the attention level high so that what they do always matters. We’ve always done that. But it’s even more important with players today because their attention spans are shorter.”
That won’t be a big problem Monday when the Huskies (30-4) play SEC power Vanderbilt (21-11) in a second-round tournament game at Gampel. The Commodores are battle-toughened with a late-season win over conference tournament champion Texas A&M.
“There is no formula [to preparing for UConn]. But I like the challenge,” said Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcolm. “I like being the underdog. My teams reflect that. But I need to prepare to come here and not think like they are already beat.”
It looks like freshman Breanna Stewart will play after missing Saturday’s game with a sore left calf.
“She looks pretty good, we’ll see what happens from here,” Auriemma said before the Huskies practiced Sunday. “I hope she gets through [Sunday] OK and has no problems. But we don’t plan to do a lot [in practice].”
“I feel good,” Stewart said Sunday. “A lot of ice.”
The Commodores defeated St, Joseph’s 60-54 in Saturday’s first round.
“We’ve met the challenge during out SEC games. The conference is filled with athletes; big guards, big posts,” Vandy senior Tiffany Clarke said. “We have a way to face because it won’t be something we haven’t seen before.”
Preparing for physical battles in the later rounds of the NCAA is what made Idaho such an important testing ground. That UConn would win big was never in doubt. What wasn’t certain was the manner it would get it done.
To help that, Auriemma gives his team smaller goals and missions during games to sharpen their skills and focus.
“You base it [progress] on matching what you have accomplished in the past,” Bria Hartley said. “Getting a tempo going like we did on Saturday excites you. You are always going to make mistakes in games, no matter how well you are playing. So what you focus on is to minimize them and make sure you don’t repeat them.
“It’s always the little things that make a difference, like where you are in terms of the defensive rotation. It’s the same no matter who you will play and its one of the things you gauge to determine how well you play.”
UConn responded with an almost flawless game. They shot 60.9 percent and held the Vandals to 14 field goals – four of their eight three-pointers came in the final 3:23.
They commanded the boards (45-23), outscored Idaho 31-0 off turnovers, had six players in double-figures and committed just six turnovers.
“It’s about how tough and hard-working we are,” Stefanie Dolson said. “You try to phase out what the other team does and focus in on how you are performing.
We usually do a good job of that. We made good decisions with the ball [against Idaho] in the open floor. And the defensive pressure we applied was incredible.”
One thing UConn will need to control is Vanderbilt point guard Jasmine Clarke, who has played 40 minutes in six of the Commodores last nine games.
“I know when to go slow and I know when to go fast,” she said. “It’s just a matter of knowing what to do in certain situations.”