By Arnie Leshin
When he was asked about the 2nd ranked UConn women getting an unprecedented 2nd seed for the NCAA basketball tournament where they own a record 11 national championships, Geno Auriemma didn’t appear to let him bother him.
“It don’t think it matters one way or another,” said the legendary head coach. “We’ve lost national championships being a No. 1 seed, and we’ve won national championships being a 2 or 3 seed if I’m not mistaken.
“We were a No. 1 seed after winning the conference again and had won our last 13, but now they made us a 2 seed, so that’s fine. But we did play a
strong schedule home and away, and only lost two times.”
Then he shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
It was the East Region in Albany, N.Y. where the NCAA was sending the Huskies. First it placed Mississippi State there as the top seed and seeded UConn second. Then, after Mississippi State lost to Louisville, it was sent to another region and Auriemma’s team became No. 1.
But when the selection committee announced its official field Monday, it continued to look like musical chairs when Louisville became the one seed in Albany and the Huskies were dropped to second seed.
When Auriemma and his team watched the selections on television, they just cheered and did some hugging, but no one looked upset or disappointed.
“We will be there,” said senior and four-year starter Katie Lou Samuelson. “We’re a good team and very confident.”
Its two setbacks were on the road, at No. 1 Baylor and at No. 3 Louisville, but had no problem rolling over then-No. 3 seed Notre Dame before a full house in South Bend. In fact everywhere UConn played brought capacity crowds and its home court in Storrs was always sold out.
And winning 34 times is not bad. Auriemma did not figure this team as one to again make the Final Four, but it improved each time out under his guidance.
It was the 6-foot-3 Samuelson, the long-range shooter and team leader, versatile 6-2 senior All-America Napheesa Collier teamed with 5-5 junior Crystal Dangerfield, as good as any point guard in the country. She leads the nation in assists, can race up and down court like a sprinter, and she can toss them in from 3-point land.
But the team also got better when 6-1 sophomore Megan Walker and 5-11 freshman ChristynWilliams came of age, Walker with her perimeter shooting and rebounding, and Williams with her 3-point shooting, with a high of 28 at Notre Dame, and also her penetrating to the basket. They were back-to-back high school players of the year.
Lacking sufficient height, Auriemma worked with 6-5 freshman Olivia Nebon-Ododa and she has gotten better with each game after a nervous start.Her offense down low is much better, and she can soar.
She won a mixed slam-dunk contest over the boys during the 2-day MacDonald’s event, and began taking down an average of 8-9 rebounds a game once she got involved as the sixth man and learned from experience.
Auriemma can call on several reserves, but he usually stays with his experienced starters. He has bench players who were high school stars, but playing for UConn is a different level.
So let’s not sell the Huskies short. There’s Baylor, Louisville, Notre Dame, Mississippi State, and even Oregon and Stanford in the way versus the most successful hoops program in women’s history (and anywhere else), as well as one of the finestlegendary coaches who knows how to win.
Californian Samuelson, also high school player of the year, chose the Huskies while her two older sisters decided to play for Stanford.
Her freshman year, UConn won the national title but a leg injury in the regional final kept her on the sidelines. And the last two seasons, she made it to the Final Four, but lost on buzzer shots in the semifinals by Mississippi State and Notre Dame.
But she doesn’t complain. She’s happy where she is, is a total team player, and returns after missing the three American Athletic Conference tournament games with back spasms but never stopped providing support from the bench against a conference where the Huskies have never lost a game, and the count is now 137-0.