By Arnie Leshin
Umps, I first thought they were ignoring Geno the genus again. Remember last women’s basketball season? No thoughts of his University of Connecticut’s team hoisting his record 12th NCAA championship.
But then came the drum roll … Ranked No. 7, a national quarterfinals win over 3rd-ranked North Carolina State despite his 6-foot-5 junior injuring her knee in the first half and carried to the sideline with no return. Even with her gone, the 6-7 senor Wolfpack All-America was held in tact.
Next came the semifinals at No. 2-ranked Stanford and again the Huskies came out on top to advance to the title game and lose by six to South Carolina. Now we have UConn All-America junior Paige Bueckers out for the season with a torn ACL that occurred in a summer playground pick-up game.
No problem, it is still around to chase another championship. Opening at No. 8, it jumped to No. 3 when it romped 91-69 over No. 10 NC State at XL Centre in Hartford, Conn., Monday night. I watched it. I also watched the 11-point second-game triumph over No. 3 Texas last week that moved the Huskies to No. 5.
No shot? Please, another shot as is the norm. Auriemma has a super sophomore in place of Bueckers in 5-11 Azzi Fudd, the national high school Player of the Year following Bueckers. She has been chili-hot, scored 37 against Texas, tallied 32 versus the Wolfpack. She hit on 12 of 24 from the field, added four 3s, and dished out four assists.
Her junior backcourt mate Nika Muhl had only three points but handed out 10 assists. Balance, you want balance? Lou Lopez Sanchal, a 6-1 graduate student who led Fairfield in scoring three straight years and was Conference Player of the Year twice, scored 20 with her main weapon, shooting, and 6-3 junior Aaliyah Edwards turned in 21 points, had four assists, and brough down a dozen rebounds.
The Huskies made good on 34 of 68 tries from the floor, and took down 34 rebounds, same as NC State. With Bueckers alongside Auriemma as student-assistant coach, kept leading the cheers and calling plays.
It was 23-13 UConn after a quarter, 40-33 at the half, 66-47 after three, and it was yet another huge turnout. The Wolfpack, bothered by the quick and talented Huskies’ defense, was 22 for 59 from the floor.
Said Auriemma: “State did return three starters, but we have a good group out there again.”
And so with another wave of injuries, Auriemma has once pieced together an impressive early-season resume.
This the earlier game of the women’s doubleheader, with No. 1 South Carolina getting past No. 2 Stanford at Palo Alto in overtime 76-71. Now 5-1, the Cardinal led by seven in the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks hung around and tied it at the regular buzzer to force overtime. After depositing a game-high 22 points, Standford’s 6-5 Kris Brink fouled out early in the OT.
That gave 4-0 South Carolina the inside advantage, and even though it missed four free throws in a row and six of eight, it still maintained the slight lead, and when it was tied in the final minutes, a technical was called on the Cardinal after it called a time out without any left. That was damaging, for now a pair of foul shots and possession of the ball spoiled any chance of the home team winning.
Behind UConn in the national poll are Ohio State, Iowa State, Indiana, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Iowa and Louisville. The top of the rankings has already been shaken up like an Etch A Sketch, with six teams ranked in the pre-season top 10 already have a loss.
No problem with Auriemma.
“There’s fewer great teams,” he said, “and a lot more good teams, so the next thing that happens is, those good teams start beating other good teams.”
But he’s not worried about his own team. Imagine next season when Bueckers returns with only one graduate, two top-flight freshmen already on hand, and four more already committed for next year.
Beware South Carolina, though. It will lose seven seniors, its best players, and UConn will no doubt again start the season on top.