NEW ORLEANS – There was a time, about six weeks ago, that Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma was telling folks he had a good, but not great, basketball team, at least not by his program’s impossibly lofty standards,
Auriemma, with seven national championships to his credit, is still not ready to elevate his evaluation. But on the eve of the Huskies’ third straight Women’s Final Four semifinal against archnemesis Notre Dame Sunday in the New Orleans Arena, he’s looking at them in a special light.
“We weren’t fortunate to have any of the ‘Three to See’ that ESPN talks about all the time,” said Auriemma referring to the touted trio of Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Delaware’s Elena Delle Donna and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins. “So we had to do it as a group rather than rely on a single person.
“But that’s always the case at Connecticut. We don’t build our program around one person, no matter who it is. And this year collectively, when we’re good, we’re really, really good.”
Collectivity is the key. This is only the third of Auriemma’s 14 Final Four teams not to have at least one Associated Press first-team All-America, and this is the second year in a row that’s been the case.
Besides, when Auriemma does downgrade the Huskies, either singularly or collectively, the players know it’s for motivational purposes.
“I think he tries to get something out of us every single day with everything he says,” senior guard Kelly Faris said. “So when he makes comments like that, it’s going to get under our skin a little bit and make us want to prove him wrong.”
And the Huskies have done that, rolling through the first rounds of the tournament with an average victory margin of 37.0 points, albeit all played within the friendly confines of the Nutmeg State.
But there’s something, mainly the improved play of freshmen Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, that have the Huskies (33-4) looking very capable of getting over the hump against the Irish, who have beaten them in seven of their past eight meetings, including all three this season and two straight in the Final Four.
Which is the way the Fighting Irish (35-1) want it to be.
“We’d have been disappointed if it had been anybody else,” Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa said. “When you get to this level, you prefer to play somebody like UConn so that after a hard and gritty game, you can say, ‘Wow! We worked hard and, wow, we won.”
That certainly was the case in the first three meetings this season.
They were settled by margins of two, one and eight points, with that eight-pointer being a 96-87 three-overtime instant classic at Notre Dame.
“All of those games were settled in the last couple of minutes,” Diggins said. “Both teams had an opportunity to win game.
“I was proud how my team just made big plays towards the end.”
That the Irish did.
At UConn on Feb. 2, it was Ariel Baker’s block and final rebound to settle a 73-72 victory. At Notre Dame, it was Diggins’ alert pass to Kayla McBride to set up the 3-pointer that sent the game to OT.
And in the Big East tournament final, it was Diggins’ steal with six seconds left and pass to Achonwa for a layup with 1.8 seconds to go that gave the Irish a 61-59 victory.
But Diggins said she doesn’t necessarily feel the Irish are inside the Huskies’ heads.
“Right now,” she said. “I don’t think the last three games matter.
“That’s because when you play Connecticut, you think about all of the championships and All-Americans and what have you.
“We’re the ones who had to overcome the intimidation factor.”
And Irish coach Muffet McGraw added, there’s always room for improvement, especially after how close the first three games were.
“I think we learned a lot from each game,” she said. “We don’t have the feeling that we’re going to beat them easily because they certainly haven’t been easy games so far.”
Plus, while Auriemma might have expressed doubt about his team’s capabilities in February, at a Chamber of Commerce banquet in March, he told the audience there was no way Notre Dame was going to beat UConn four times in one year.
His team seems to have gotten the message.
“We’ve been working towards this all season,” sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “And I think we’re finally starting to get the hang of it.”