Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Guru's NCAA: UConn Roasts Ducks and Heads to 10th Straight Women's Final Four

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – The rear view behind the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team continues to be quite a majestic scene and establishment of what glory days continue to lie ahead.

It was over quickly here at Webster Bank Arena Monday night with an early 17-0 run and a turn-over defense that gave the immediate four-time defending NCAA champion and still unbeaten Huskies a lopsided 90-52 victory over 10th-seeded Oregon for the Bridgeport Regional Title and now a decade’s worth of 10 consecutive trips to the Women’s Final Four.

“For us to have gone 10 months of March in a row and not having lost a game through a whole different cast of characters, over all that time, that’s pretty darned good,” said Hall of Fame UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “That’s probably more than anything what really hits home for me.”

With an 18th regional title in possession dating to the initial one obtained in Philadelphia in 1991, the last two steps to update the number of national titles from 11 to 12 await this weekend in the Lone Star State where on Friday night UConn (36-0) will face Oklahoma City Regional champion Mississippi State (33-4) in the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

If the Bulldogs cannot reverse the thrashing handed them by the Huskies in this regional a year ago then Connecticut will move on to Sunday’s championship for the fifth straight year and face either Stockton Regional champion South Carolina (31-4), coached by Dawn Staley, or Lexington Regional champion Stanford (32-5).

Left in the wake of UConn’s latest carnage is the previous record of NCAA tournament overall wins held by the late legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. The new one is in the hands of Auriemma at 113.

And the ongoing NCAA consecutive win streak record now stands at 111, just 20 away from the fabled 131 total beyond the NCAA compiled by the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens in the 1950s.

“There were a lot of people who came before us to to start the streak,” junior Kia Nurse said following the win over the Ducks (23-14). “And we are kind of carrying on that legacy that they left, and that’s something that we focus on every day. We’re focused on the fact that UConn is built into what UConn is today because of everybody who came before and what we’re doing right now.

“So to understand that, to want to go out and play great Connecticut basketball is a testament to these people who have done it before us.”

But it was not even suppose to be on the bill of particulars for discussion this season because after the graduation of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck, who went 1-2-3 in last year’s WNBA draft, while it was not totally out of the question that Nurse and her teammates could be headed for Dallas, certainly they would be going with a less gaudy appearance pock-marked with losses on a difficult non-conference schedule not a more gaudy one than many of the star-studded UConn contingents of previous vintages.

Auriemma, who usually has a quip targeted at a player or two of his, seems in total awe himself of what this young roster with just two seniors – one a walk-on – has accomplished after being understudies on the recent UConn champions.

“The players we have today, for the first time in their careers they’ve owned the whole month of March,” he said. “They weren’t just along for the ride. It’s theirs. And that’s a huge step.

“And that’s what I told them in the locker room. That’s a big step to go from riding in the back seat on a trip you’re going to, to all of a sudden you’re in charge of driving the bus and you’re responsible for getting us there,” Auriemma noted.

“A lot of times people have to lose to learn how to win, and for them to just step right in where the other team left off and take immediate ownership of it, that says a lot about who they are.

“You know I can’t say enough about each and every one of them, but especially that starting five. I mean there’s just something unique about them right now that’s going on, and they deserve all of it. And they don’t have to share it with anybody; it’s not anyone else’s but theirs, and they’re enjoying it.”

That group starts with sophomore Napheesa Collier, voted the most outstanding player in the regional after scoring 28 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, dealing two assists, blocking four shots, and grabbing two steals.

“Having watched Pheesa play all year long, I can’t describe what she does,” Auriemma said. “She’s effortless in what she does. Seriously, it’s like a self-driving car. It’s effortless. She just goes.

“I mean, she’s effortless on defense, too. Don’t get me wrong. But the offense for her just comes effortless. I can’t even explain it.”

Junior Gabby Williams, who, along with Nurse, had to take over the leadership of this team, had 25 points and four steals.

“Both of us were forced into leadership roles because we were becoming the older guys on the team., and I think this is a challenge we accepted,” Nurse said, while Williams added, “Those guys did everything for us last year, last two years, but the thing about them, too, they showed us and they taught us how to do it ourselves.

“They knew that once we got into this position that we would be ready for it because they showed us how to do it.”

Nurse had 11 points and seven assists, while Saniya Chong, who has blossomed her senior season, had 11 points, four assists, and three steals. Katie Lou Samuelson didn’t have one of her explosive nights on offense like the 10-for-10 three pointers she made in the American Athletic Conference title game, but she scored eight points, dealt four assists and had five steals.

On Saturday, Oregon had continued to get attention for its string of upsets and especially for taking down a three-seed Maryland squad considered one of the two main threats in the entire tournament to UConn. The other was Baylor and both are gone with the Bears having fallen to Mississippi State on Sunday night.

But if the Ducks might be a replacement problem instead of Maryland, the Huskies weren’t buying it forcing Oregon into 22 turnovers that produced a dominant 32-12 stat on points off turnovers. UConn was also 21-2 on second chance points.

Oregon, considering the whole night as a learning experience, seemed to take the whipping in stride, kind of like what Villanova veteran coach Harry Perretta used to say in the glory days of the old Big East, “Those other guys think they’re going to win the game (against UConn) and when they don’t it takes them several weeks to get their acts back together.

“We just take our medicine and move on which is why we can do well so soon after playing UConn.”

That seemed to be the theme of Oregon’s Kelly Graves in his postgame remarks as well as several of the players.

“They’re really, really good,” Graves said of UConn. “I think we had our team ready. Our team was confident going in. I just don’t think we were able to handle that that early, I think just kind of the shock how good they are, and got us on our heels quickly.

“The turnovers doomed us from the get-go, and that defensive pressure really set the tone.”

Freshman sensation Sabrina Ionescu, who had 15 points, the only Oregon player in double figures other than freshman Ruthy Hebard with 12, talked about the attitude of the Ducks in the game.

“I said, `Guys, we should just live in the moment. It doesn’t come around often, and just enjoy it. Enjoy playing against the No. 1 team in the country, and we’re going to try to do what they do because I think we can become the next UConn here at Oregon.’

“I think it was really fun. The atmosphere was great., and playing against them is something we’d like to do more often and definitely learn from what they do there.”

In some ways this team recalls the 2003 UConn national champions that in the wake of the studded unbeaten 2002 bunch seemed to be poised for retooling other than Diana Taurasi was still on the squad.

Auriemma said that alone makes the two teams incomparable, especially when this one had no preseason all-Americans on the roster and now have three in Samuelson, Williams, and Collier, with Nurse drawing some attention from other places.

“Maybe the first two weeks of practice, I remember looking at one of our assistants, and I thought, `We’re going to win a national championship because Diana had the ability to take two freshmen and two other kids that had never started a game and make them look like veterans,’” he said.

“She elevated their game by who she was, the way she played, how she talked to them, how she led them,” Auriemma explained.

“Going into this season, we didn’t have anybody like that, so I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know who was going to be responsible for any of this stuff, and maybe that’s the way it needed to be this year, so they all had to depend on each other instead of depending on one person.

“And they were never allowed to take a break because they all had to be there every night or we weren’t going to be able to do what we’ve done.”

As for no one getting the preseason acclaim individually that UConn players have usually had and now for the three to draw all-American status, Auriemma said, “They earned it this year. They played the best schedule, they played the best teams, and they did it under the glare of the lights they play under all the time. The fact those three were three of the top 10 players in the country, they earned it, and they deserve it.”