(AP) – Geno Auriemma and Connecticut have turned women’s college basketball into their own showcase.
Over the past two decades, the Hall of Fame coach and his players have been the face of the sport, winning nine championships and poised to make a run at a 10th title. They have given casual fans of the game a brand they can identify with, and along the way become the kind of villain that everyone likes to hate.
And the always candid Auriemma is unapologetic, particularly with anyone who paints his program as the big, bad empire that no one can overthrow.
”It’s not like we’ve done something that can’t be done,” said Auriemma, who has been at UConn for 30 years and posted his 900th win this season. ”That’s not my fault that it’s not getting done at other places.
”I don’t want to stop setting the bar, and it’s up to everybody else to try to get there.”
It’s a high bar. UConn has won four titles in the past six seasons and a trip to the Final Four every year in that span. Only the UCLA men’s team from 1964-75 has had a better stretch, winning 10 national championships.
The top-seeded Huskies (32-1) begin this year’s run Saturday at home against St. Francis, Brooklyn (15-18), which will be making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
UConn beat fellow No. 1 seed Notre Dame in December by 18 and has won games by an average of 42.0 points, including victories over South Carolina – another No. 1 seed – and Duke. The lone blemish on its record is an overtime loss in the second game of the season to Stanford. That is the only loss in the past 79 games for the Huskies and it drew more attention than most of their wins.
That’s what happens to dominant teams like the Yankees, or the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s. It’s a spot Connecticut players relish.
”We’ve worked for that. That’s something that we feel like is an honor,” senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. ”If you don’t have (people hating you) then what are you really working for? We know that we have to work 10 times as hard, just because those people want us to lose and they’re always going to play their best games against us.
”So, by all means, we’ll wear the black hat if that means that we’ve being doing our jobs right.”
Star forward Breanna Stewart, tops on UConn with 17.4 points per game, said her team is battle tested.
”We’ve played South Carolina; we’ve played Duke,” she said. ”We’ve played the teams that are considered the top teams in the country. Obviously, we know how to play tough competition.”
The Terriers may not fit that bill.
St. Francis is the 10th team to make the NCAA Tournament with a losing record. It won the Northeast Conference tournament with three straight road wins as the fifth seed and is led by Sarah Benedetti, who is from Canton, Connecticut.
She grew up a huge fan of the Huskies, idolizing players such as Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore.
”If someone were to tell me at the beginning of my college career that you would be finishing as a senior at Gampel, playing UConn, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. ”So, this is honestly a dream come true.”