Ho Hum? UConn’s latest title spawns smaller party

A crowd greeted the champs at the airport and another waited
inside the home arena of a UConn women’s basketball team that
hasn’t lost a game in more than two years.

But this was no delirious victory rally – 90 percent of the
seats were empty.

UConn officials estimated about 1,000 fans were inside Gampel
Pavilion on Wednesday to celebrate with the Huskies a day after
UConn defeated Stanford for its 78th straight win and back-to-back
national championships.

In an arena that seats just under 10,200, the atmosphere was
something less than electric.

“It was so disheartening,” said Dawn Riquier-Shayer, who
arrived two hours before the rally. “It upset me that there were
so few people here. Almost embarrassing. I think No. 1, the
students don’t support it and it’s really disheartening. I think
the other thing with a lot of the fans, I think they’re taking (the
team) for granted.”

The celebration drew more fans to Gampel than the game itself.
Only about 650 people showed up to watch the game being televised
from San Antonio.

“I was kind of surprised because I came last year and I think
it seemed a little bit more full,” said Sam Simons, 19, a
sophomore. “I think people feel sometimes they don’t even have to
watch the women’s games because they already know what’s going to
happen, but this was the national championship.”

There were no bonfires or impromptu parades on campus Tuesday
night after the game, in which UConn rallied from a horrible first
half to win, 53-47.

Is UConn’s dominance – seven national titles since 1995 –
causing even the Huskies’ fans to lose interest?

“I think it’s decreased over the years with these
championships,” said Mary Duprey of Tolland, Conn. “In ’95, the
place was packed. Maybe it’s complacency.”

Joan Schulte from Prospect, Conn., wasn’t going to miss the
victory rally, but found the low attendance disappointing.

“I think that’s very sad,” Schulte said. “I think these girls
and the coach put a lot of hard work into it. They make it look
easy. They’ve accomplished things that no other teams have
accomplished, and they deserve all the praise and encouragement
that they could get.”

At the airport, even coach Geno Auriemma joked about the size of
the crowd – about 175 fans waiting in summer-like heat for the
Huskies’ plane to land.

“I know there would be a lot more people but they’re probably
hospitalized,” Auriemma said, referring to UConn’s rally after the
Huskies scored only 12 points in the first half. “So if you see
any of your friends, tell them we won.”

Sue Lindgren of East Longmeadow, Mass., made her first trip to
Bradley International Airport to cheer her favorite team.

“I thought there would be more people here,” she said. “This
is kind of special, back-to-back and how long its gone without
losing.”

Anita Clinton-Briley drove nearly the entire width of
Connecticut, a 72-mile trip from Bridgeport on Long Island Sound to
Windsor Locks near the Massachusetts line to see the Huskies, as
she has done in past years.

“I remember when the boys came here,” she said, referring to
UConn’s men’s team, which last won a title in 2004. “I have the
time. It’s a beautiful day.”

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, mingling with the airport crowd
before the team arrived, said it didn’t matter how many
well-wishers showed up.

“Five people, 500 people, 5,000 people. We’re the best fans,
the best supporters.”

At the celebration inside Gampel Pavilion, stars Maya Moore and
Tina Charles wore the nets from the Alamodome around their necks.
Moore wasn’t concerned about the size of the crowd.

“I appreciate the people who are here today for our
homecoming,” Moore said. “We had a great time in San Antonio with
the crowd there. In that championship game, we really felt that we
had a lot of fans there and there was a lot of blue in the
crowd.”

Devoted fans didn’t let the lack of a throng diminish their
party. Riquier-Shayer held up a sign that read “Got Champs” on
the front and “Simply the Best” on the back. When players walked
around the arena giving fans high-fives, she handed the sign to
senior Kaili Maclaren.

The national championship trophy sat on a small table on the
stage where Auriemma and the rest of the team gathered. Highlights
of the team’s second straight perfect season were shown on the
video board.

“Great teams have great fans. Give yourself a round of
applause,” UConn president Michael Hogan told the crowd.

The crowd gave Auriemma a 20-second standing ovation when he was
introduced.

“People say, ‘Does it ever get old to win the national
championship?”’ he said. “No, it never gets old because the
seniors on my team, whenever it happens, and especially this group,
aren’t going to ever let it get old and aren’t going to ever take
it for granted.”

AP contributor David Heuschkel in Storrs, Conn. provided details
for this report.