ALBANY — Geno Auriemma turned 65 on March 23, a strange thing to consider. It’s easy to think of Auriemma as ageless, both because of the level of energy he always brings to the task of building the greatest program in women’s basketball and the consistency of success that’s come with it.
So standing with a few reporters following his official postgame press conference — that’s right, Geno holds two of them, spreading the gospel of women’s basketball — even he seemed floored by the amount of time contained within his UConn program’s success, 12 Final Fours in a row, 20 total dating back to 1991.
Because to Auriemma, this one felt like his first.
“There was nothing easy about it,” Auriemma said. “Some years, you start the first game of the year, you win by 50, and then you win every other game by either 49 or 51. And everybody just goes, ho-hum. And you start to think, ‘Okay, what’s the big deal here?’ And you watch all these other teams when they play, they win an NCAA game and the emotions are unbelievable, or they win a regional and it’s crazy, right?
“And I never want to get to a point where all of a sudden, I don’t feel that. And this particular team made it feel that way because of the struggles we went through throughout the season, both the ones you could see and ones you couldn’t see. It was a struggle.”
The 80-73 win over Louisville brought that picture into full view. A UConn team usually throws numbers at you. This one played six players, four of them for the full 40 minutes, and only Katie Lou Samuelson’s foul trouble forced Auriemma to use a substitute at all. Samuelson scored 29 points, managing to overcome a back injury significant enough that her coach feared for her physical and emotional well-being as late as the day of the game.
“She was not in a good place yesterday, physically or mentally,” Auriemma said. “She doesn’t look it, but she’s a tough kid. There’s a certain toughness about her. It’s not surprising. It’s not surprising. Today was an amazing performance by her. Absolutely amazing.”
Auriemma and Samuelson had an extended sitdown, and then the future WNBA player dominated Louisville from the outside, hitting seven threes while bringing the full force of her personality to the court. At one point, chasing a loose ball, she reached the radio broadcast, the announcer holding out his hands to brace her if she fell. Smiling, she gave him a low five and ran back up the court.
During a tournament in which Napheesa Collier has established her bona fides as the best player in the country, it took Samuelson returning to form to remind people just how formidable UConn can be, a fact lost on the NCAA committee when it gave the Huskies a two seed. (And to be sure, that remained in their heads all regional long.)
But the grudging respect that’s come to Connecticut this year, against a sport eager to move on, is impossible to miss by now. There’s a Final Four to be played, and it’s hard to argue that UConn is the favorite. After all, they were a two seed.
There are a pair of ones, Notre Dame and Baylor, Muffet McGraw’s team as potent offensively as any in the country, Kim Mulkey’s group with one loss all season, a stifling defense and impossible matchups out of the four and five spots with Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown. Oregon features the extraordinary Sabrina Ionescu, interior force Ruthy Hebard and a slew of shooters like Erin Boley and second playmaker Maite Cazorla.
Even the teams they beat to get here emphasize how hard it is. Louisville, a Final Four team from last year with Asia Durr, who beat UConn back in January. Stanford, an elite defensive team and winner of the Pac-12 tournament coached by legendary Tara VanDerveer, who beat Baylor earlier this season.
Iowa, led by the most efficient offensive player in the country, Megan Gustafson. Mississippi State, two-time NCAA finalist with the impossibly strong Teaira McCowan, future WNBA rim protector. Those were the Elite Eight’s losing teams. Think about what that says for the winners. But UConn is back, too, yet again. 12 straight years.
“Yeah, I mean, everybody talks about it, so it’s been brought up a bunch of times, but it doesn’t make it any easier to digest,” Auriemma said. “We’ve been in more Final Fours in a row than some Conferences have been in Final Fours, period. It’s hard to wrap everything around in a nice little package and go, ‘Yeah, this is where this fits.’ It doesn’t. It doesn’t fit at all.”
For UConn, though what’s old is new again. They have Collier and Samuelson, junior point guard Crystal Dangerfield, three underclassmen in Christyn Williams, Megan Walker and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and spectators on the bench.
But if it felt like the first time to Auriemma, he pointed out that for many of his players, this really was a brand-new experience.
“For anybody out there that’s disappointed that we’re in the Final Four, I hate to disappoint you,” Auriemma said with a smile. “My guys are just as entitled to go as anybody else’s guys. Christyn and Olivia have never been to a Final Four, so they’re just as entitled to go as any freshman. So, I’m thrilled for them, and it’s not their twelfth in a row. It’s their first. And this is Megan’s second. She didn’t even play in last year’s, and now she’s gonna start and have to play a huge role in this one. So, lot of first times coming up.”