By Arnie Leshin
Geno (the genius) Auriemma had it all figured out.
His UConn women were a 2nd seed, no big deal because all that would mean is they have to wear their road blues and sit on another bench, the one designated for visiting teams.
Then there was the back injury to his 6-foot-3 senior short shooter Katie Lou Samuelson. It occurred prior to the American Athletic Conference tournament, and of course the unbeatable Huskies had never lost in 137 games of this conference.
So the legendary head coach kept her out of the three AAC tournament games that his team had no problem winning, than kept her on the bench in the second round of a tough test versus 10th seeded Buffalo in the NCAA tournament, and in the next round she made only one field goal and that came in the final minute and she finished with only seven points.
Then came Louisville, the top seed that was one of two teams to defeat UConn this season. There might have been more figuring to do, but Auriemma had it all in check and his underdog women got the message.
And that became the 80-73 surprise over Louisville in the Elite Eight played in Albany, N.Y. His team came out and set the tone with a 9-0 lead that included Samuelson’s first of seven 3-pointers. The Cards did respond by taking a 16-12 lead, and that was the only time they went in front.
After that, Louisville fell behind several times by 10 or more points, and got within four points a few times, but its biggest surge came when it trailed by 11 points with 1:47 left. But when the deficit became only two points with 26 seconds left, Samuelson converted two free throws, and after Cardinal senior standout Asia Durr missed a pair of charity throws, Collier added two more freebies, Samuelson another two, and the celebration began.
Behind the clutch 3s tossed in by Samuelson, the 16 points by freshman Christyn Williams, the 13 from sophomore Megan Walker, the dozen turned in by senior Napheesa Collier, and the 10 from 5-5 junior point guard Crystal Dangerfield, it brought UConn its record 12th straight entrance into the Final Four.
Collier also brought down 10 rebounds, had two blocks, Dangerfield handed out nine assists, and Williams and Walker added the experience they picked up each time out.
With Auriemma, the owner of a record national championships with the program from Storrs, using only six players, the lone reserve for a few minutes was 6-5 freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa. But playing as usual with smarts, his team didn’t have a player fouling out, with it happening only once this season.
But Samuelson went to the bench when she picked up her fourth personal near the end of the third quarter. Auriemma sent her back in with 8:17 to go. He took a chance and it paid off.
Winding up with the game-high 29 points, she made four key 3s, each one followed by the Husky fans who only had to make a 2-hour trip from Connecticut and were the bulk of the crowd announced at 9,204. To the Huskies it wasn’t that much of a road trip, and their band even got to play the pre-game National Anthem.
When the final buzzer sounded, the pro-UConn supporters stood and stood and continued to let the team know how much they loved this one over a long span that has seen tons of others. The players celebrated by mobbing Samuelson, tossing confetti on each other and the coaches, as well as on many of the fans that made their way to the court.
“Well, you know,” Auriemma said, “I said many times to people that we weren’t going to go undefeated, would lose some games, but that we could also win the whole thing.”
Now the Huskies are 35-2 and two more victories away from adding another championship.
The last two years have had them losing on buzzer-beaters in the semifinals to first Mississippi State and then to Notre Dame. Now they head for Tampa, Fla., and will face the winner of tonight’s top-seeded Irish-2nd seeded Stanford game Regional final in Chicago.
Louisville head coach Jeff Walz was all class in the post-game interview after his team wound up 32-4.
“It was a great basketball game, and I told Geno that,” he said. “There were a lot of big plays, and unfortunately for us, they made a few more. For those who didn’t sit back and watch this game and appreciate how it was played, then it’s a shame.”
And Auriemma had more to say.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to happen,” he said in regard to incredible run. “Not in today’s world the way things change and teams keep getting better and better. It’s just not normal. It’s something that’s hard to describe because even if you’re writing a book and making it up, people would say it doesn’t happen in real life.”
He went on, “But it does happen in real life. I’m still boggled, my mind doesn’t get how it can happen this many years in a row with a different cast of characters that change so often. No, it’s not normal, it’s not normal.”
Well Geno, look in the mirror and you will see the one who orchestrated all this since arriving on the scene in 1985, and who began this magical ridewith the first national title in 1995.
This program has put together a long list of accomplishments established under legendary head coach Auriemma, and it keeps adding more, this time coming into the Albany, N.Y. Region as the surprise 2nd seed and spoiling the dreams of No. 1 seed Louisville, 80-73.
In compiling yet another remarkable regular season record of 35-2, the only Husky losses came on the road, by 9 at top-ranked Baylor, and by 9 at then 3rd-ranked Louisville. The Bears outsizedUConn, the Cardinals outshot
So Auriamma shrugged off landing the 2 seed, and ended the interview last week with a touch of sarcasim.
“Well, we only lost two times,” said the owner of a record 11 national championships, and who took less time than anyone else to reach 1,000 victories, and has the number one win percentage.
And he added that the only difference in seeds was that they would wear their road uniforms and sit on the opposite bench.
He’s already a Hall of Famer and you can’t beat success, not when you speak of Geno the genius.
And he’s a great motivator. He often told this team that it is not unbeatable, could lose a few, but could also win the whole thing.
This time, when many thought these Huskies would bow out in the Empire State’s capitol city, they opened on a 9-0 run with the 6-foot-3 Samuelson tossing in her first of seven 3s.
Louisville then rallied to take its only lead at 16-15, but it didn’t last long and the Cards trailed the rest of the way, although they trimmed an 11-point to 75-73 with 26 seconds left.
But Samuelson converted a pair of free throws, and after Louisville senior standout Asia Durr failed to make two freebies, Husky senior star Napheesa Collier added two more charity tosses, and her team now heads for Tampa Bay and will play the winner of Monday night’s top seeded Notre Dame and 2nd seeded Stanford game.
Yes, the UConn beat goes on.