Auriemma After More UConn NCAA History in Hometown Philly
This is the raw copy, though not much changed, from the Guru feature for the printed Inquirer that is already in the advanced edition in case you can’t find it directly on philly.com. But head there anyhow for a long feature on Maya Moore by Ashley Fox that is already in the advanced edition. The later press run Saturday night will include coverage of the day’s events at Temple. And the Guru will be tweeting and blogging with his guest stars throughout the day.)
By Mel Greenberg
FOR THE INQUIRER
Homecoming visits to Philadelphia with his Connecticut Huskies are always special occasions for women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, who grew up in Norristown.
Big East games against Villanova at The Pavilion on the Main Line usually draw a large group of his friends and family among the crowd eager to view one of the most dominant teams in the women’s game that Auriemma has nurtured since his hire in 1985.
Twice, previously, the Auriemma visits here have been extra special because they have involved milestone moments for UConn in NCAA tournament competition in 1991 in the East Regional and 2000 at the Women’s Final Four.
Auriemma, who turned 57 on Wednesday and is in his 26th season with the Huskies, is looking to add another pleasant NCAA memory from here on Sunday. That’s when UConn (34-1), the overall No. 1 seed and two-time defending champion, will face Big East rival Georgetown (24-10) at noon in the Philadelphia Regional semifinals at Temple’s Liacouras Center.
The fifth-seeded Hoyas pulled one of the big surprises of the tournament in the second round, beating host and fourth-seeded Maryland 79-57 as Sugar Rodgers scored a career-record 34 points.
“Whatever tickets were made available to me – and it was a lot – I’ve used them all up and it wasn’t enough,” Auriemma said Thursday prior to leaving for Philadelphia. “So that gives you an idea. I’ve never seen it as a distraction. I think it’s a fun time. I’m going to enjoy it. My only distractions down there are the great restaurants I am going to be eating at.”
If the Huskies emerge from here Tuesday and win another NCAA title next weekend in Indianapolis they will match Tennessee with eight championships. This would also be their second three-peat (2002-04), which Tennessee once achieved (1996-98).
A year ago UConn became the first women’s team to win back-to-back titles with unbeaten records and in December the Huskies set an NCAA Division I win streak record with 90, breaking the UCLA’s men mark of 88.
They then fell at Stanford and thus ended a record run of 51 straight weeks at No. 1 in the Associated Press women’s poll. But UConn returned to the top last month and hasn’t lost since.
“The winning streak feels like it happened in a different season,” Auriemma said. “The way this year played out, that’s almost gotten lost. We are so much about what we are trying to accomplish and some of the obstacles we have that there hasn’t been time to reflect.
“I think that might happen at some point down the road but I don’t think there is anyone who has given any thought to that or what effect it had on us. It’s almost like we kind of passed through that fog and now we are on to something else.”
Auriemma, who is 7-0 in NCAA title games, leads active women’s coaches with a 769-123 record for a .862 winning percentage. His Huskies have just won their 17th Big East tournament title.
Personal accolades include inductions to the Women’s and Naismith Basketball Halls of Fame and his new role coaching the United States Olympic squad next year at the 2012 London Games.
Senior sensation Maya Moore and many of his former stars including Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird are expected to be on the squad. Overall, Auriemma has developed 13 first-team all-Americans, each with multiple appearances; and 11 first round WNBA draft picks. Next month Moore is a prohibitive favorite to follow Bird (2002), Taurasi (2004), and Tina Charles (2010) as the overall No. 1 pick.
This weekend’s Philadelphia visit is the 20th anniversary of UConn’s first splash on the national scene in terms of NCAA advancement.
In 1991, the games at The Palestra became a launching pad for the Huskies’ future domination when they moved on to the Women’s Final Four in New Orleans after their first Sweet 16 appearance.
“The thing I remember most about that weekend at The Palestra is the novelty of it all,” Auriemma recalled. “Our kids and fans found out what it felt like to be at the regionals for the very first time.
“I was pretty fortunate that our first time ever in a regional, it’s being held in Philadelphia at a place I think so highly of, with a group of kids on the team where most of them have Philadelphia roots. It was just perfect.”
One of the stars was Central Bucks East’s Meghan (nee Pattyson) Cuomo.
Connecticut beat Atlantic Coast Conference powers North Carolina State (82-71) and Clemson (60-57) but fell in the national semifinals to Virginia.
But Auriemma, always quick with a quip, became an instant media magnet in the manner of such fellow Italian coaches on the men’s side as Rick Pitino and John Calipari with his wisecracking remarks.
Years ago when the Kentucky women’s job was rumored to become open and Pitino was with the Wildcats men’s team, Geno jested about landing the opening, saying, “It’ll be great – Geno and Pitino.”
He once was heard to remark to TV reporters among the large UConn media contingent: “Do you know how difficult it is for me to be me?”
After UConn broke the win-streak record in December, Auriemma chided President Obama for interupting the postgame press conference with a congratulatory phone call.
He started in the women’s game as a one-year assistant to his friend Jim Foster (now at Ohio State) at St. Joseph’s. Auriemma then assisted future Hawks men’s coach Phil Martelli at Bishop Kenrick High before becoming an aide to Virginia women’s coach Debbie Ryan.
UConn was almost short-circuited in the 1991 NCAA’s earlier round at home in Storrs. However, a last-second foul was ruled to be too late and the Huskies survived Toledo, 81-80.
“(Referee) Dee (Kantner) came over checked with the timer, who’d I already shown pictures of my uncles and cousins in Philly, so when Dee said `Did time expire before the foul?’ he just went like this (Auriemma gestured nodding his head).”
The 1991 breakthrough enabled Auriemma to gain a prized recruit in future All-American Rebecca Lobo, who now does TV sideline work for ESPN’s women’s coverage. In ensuing years, point guard Jennifer Rizzotti (now coach of Hartford) and center Kara Wolters arrived.
That talent flux by 1995 brought the Huskies their first NCAA title at 35-0 in a season that also included two wins over Tennessee, including the championship game, in the first pair of meetings ever with the Lady Vols.
However, Connecticut did not experience the ultimate NCAA thrill again until 2000. That was when Auriemma’s group was back in Philadelphia for the Women’s Final Four at the then-named First Union Center. The Huskies demolished Tennessee 71-52 in the championship after beating Penn State in the national semifinals.
“The whole weekend in 2000 was kind of a magical experience,” Auriemma recalled. “When you win a national championship, you feel unbelievably fortunate. To be put in position to win another one, not many coaches get the opportunity to do that.
“On top of that, the fact we had a chance to do that in front of our family and friends and people we grew up with and to play the way we did made it feel like a storybook.”
For Auriemma and the UConn women, it’s been open-ended that way ever since.