By Arnie Leshin
With all due respect to the late Pat Summit, it’s no doubt a myth when you compare her legendary women’s basketball program at Tennessee to the one being put together by Geno Auriemma at Connecticut.
Yes, she won eight national championships, yes, she went undefeated at 39-0 in the 1998 campaign, yes, she dominated the Southeastern Conference when she reigned supreme with the Volunteers for 38 years, and yes, she has been recognized for these accomplishments with her induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But this is no way compares to what UConn has achieved since Auriemma took over a second-year Division I program that had played in a high school gymnasium when he arrived as the only applicant for the head coaching position in 1985, 11 years after Summit had already settled in at the Knoxville school.
It took a while before he won his first NCAA title in 1995, seven years after Tennessee (28-6) had won its initial championship in 1987, routing Louisiana Tech, 67-44, in the final in Austin, Tx. Then the Vols (35-2) won in 1989 by defeating Auburn, 76-60, in Tacoma, Wash., and again in 1991 by going 30-5 and getting past Virginia, 70-67, in overtime in New Orleans, La.
But then the ride turned, for in 1995 they met up with UConn in the final, lost 80-64 in Minneapolis, Minn., and this was the first of four-straight setbacks to the Huskies. That’s correct, four times the teams met in the championship game, and it was 4-0 UConn. The other defeats in what had become a rivalry between the old breed and the new was in 2000, 81-52; then 83–68 in 2003; next 80-61 in 2004; and in the semifinals in 2002 n San Antonio, Tx., when UConn again went unbeaten at 39-0, it rolled past Tennessee, 81-59, before turning back Oklahoma, 82-70, in the final.
Eleven times the Huskies have been in the final and eleven times that have hoisted the championship trophy. Auriemma and his program, and in 2016 when they overwhelmed Syracuse, 82-51, in Indianapolis, Ind., they now had won one more than legendary head coach John Wooden had accomplished with his storied program at UCLA.
At the time, Bill Walton, an All-America who does the college basketball television commentary, and was one of Wooden’s elite players, said; “Hey, I have tremendous respect for the great years we turned in for the Bruins, but it’s remarkable what Geno Auriemma has done for his program, the players he has turned out, his coaching has been brilliant, and no telling how many national titles he will win.”
Well, before Summit passed away after being set back by Alzheimer disease in 2016, she last coached in 2012 and last won the championship in 2006, turning back Stanford, 64-48, in Tampa, Fla., a year after winning it versus Rutgers, 59-46, in the title game in Cleveland, Oh. She went 34-3 and 36-2 back-to-back.
From there, it was Connecticut (39-0) in 2009 taking another crown against Louisville, 76-54, then victorious against Stanford, 53-47, again in San Antonio, next going 35-4 in 2014 by rolling past Louisville, 79-58, and making it back-to-back title-game wins over Notre Dame,79-58, in 2014, and 63-53, in 2015, with a 38-1 record, and then came Its fifth unbeaten season at 38-0 in 2016 when it routed Syracuse, 82-51, in Indianapolis, Ind.
After that there’s been a slight draught for the Huskies. Close but coming up short in back-to-back semifinals, first on a buzzer-beater shot against Mississippi State in 2018, and again in 2019 on a buzzer-beater made by Notre Dame in 2018. In 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic became an issue, Baylor won the championship by nipping the Fighting Irish, 82-81, in a thriller won in the finals seconds in Tampa, Fla.
Summit, who was responsible for putting together her schedule, removed UConn from its slate in 2008. But last year, the schools renewed the rivalry with back-to-back, home and away games, and at Storrs the Huskies had no problem seeing unranked Tennessee again by sending it away with a 84-58 loss, and this season it was a tougher task before coming away with a 67-61 triumph in Knoxville over the 17th-ranked Volunteers. The difference here was that at home, UConn has gone the season without a single fan in the stands, while at Tennessee, there was an announced attendance of 3,437 when the Huskies visited. In its lone loss, 71-68 at non-conference opponent Arkansas, a women’s national season-high of 4,400 were in the stands for the UConn game.
And if you check the current Associated Press top 25 rankings, Connecticut is right back where it usually is. With not a senior on the 12-player roster of seven freshmen, three sophomores and two juniors, and with freshman sensation Paige Bueckers a strong candidate for Player of the Year, they took over the top spot after handing then-No. 1, visiting South Carolina a 66-61 defeat.
Saturday afternoon, the Huskies moved to 18-1 by dominating Xavier, 83-31, in Cincinnati, Oh., by shooting 58 percent from the field, having a huge advantage in rebounds, 53-16, holding Xavier (4-6) without a 3, and continuing their much-improved defense mixed in with the balanced attack they have pieced together. In the previous contest against the visiting Musketeers, UConn dominated 106-59.
Its next stop is Thursday, Feb. 28, at Creighton (6-8), and then traveling to Butler two days later before winding up at home versus Marquette (16-7) on Feb. 27th before the playoff seedings are announced. In the earlier meeting at Marquette, the Huskies prevailed 87-58.
Behind Connecticut and Tennessee in state championships is Baylor with three. Louisiana Tech, Southern California, Stanford and Notre Dame have won twice, and Purdue, Texas, Maryland, Texas A & M, South Carolina, Texas Tech, and Old Dominion have won one each. Back in the day, Old Dominion had Nancy Lieberman of Far Rockaway, N.Y., one of the game’s all-time elite players. Along with the undefeated seasons of UConn and Tennessee, Texas went 34-0 in 1986, and Baylor 40-0 in 2012.
The Huskies had their 108-straight winning streak ended in double overtime in game two of the campaign in 2015 at Stanford. From 2013-2016, they compiled a record of 155-5.
They are currently playing their best ball of a season in which they were 7th-ranked in the preseason. Before they surged into the top spot. it was first previously undefeated Louisville there, followed by Stanford, North Carolina State, and South Carolina. Earlier in the season, Auriemma was unsure of what to expect, but lately he has been smiling more and admitting that this young team is playing its best at an important time.
“Well,” he said recently, “Paige has been Paige, she’s been our leader and among the top of the list in the land in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and her 3-point shooting percentage. Christryn (Williams) has settled in, throwing in the 3s, running the floor and taking down boards, Olivia (Nelson-Ododa) has been playing as we wanted, posting when needed, hitting the 3, bringing down rebounds, and even dishing out assists.
“It’s become a real team effort with (Evina) Westbook, (Aaliyah) Edwards, Aubrey (Griffin), Nika (Muhl), and others who come in off the bench contributing. And Saylor (Poffenbarger), our newest freshman who graduated high school early, will be seeing more play. And can’t forget freshman Mir McLean, who has been real tough inside and on defense.”
Bueckers is the only freshman on the mid-season 50-player John Wooden Award list.
EXTRA POINTS: Auriemma has won 1,108 times and lost 143 for a best-ever .866 percentage. He is presently right behind Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, who is 1,112-255, percentage .813. Summit is third at 1,088-208, with a .841 percentage. VanDerveer is in her 42nd season, seven more than Auriemma.
The other 1,000–plus head coaches are Barbara Stevens (1,058), C. Vivian Stringer (1,046), and Sylvia Hatchell (1,023). Only Sringer and Stevens are still coaching, Stringer in her 26th year at Rutgers, her third stop, and overall her 51st season, and Stevens, now in her 15th year at Bentley, her third stop, and 43rd campaign. Hatchell coached 44 years, 23 at North Carolina before retiring.