ALBANY — Good try, Geno.
After UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma was welcomed Friday to the dais for his press conference leading into Saturday’s Sweet 16 game at Times Union Center, the living legend tried to set the scene as if the Huskies are just another program.
“Obviously, there’s not a lot of teams left in the tournament,” Auriemma said. “We’re like everybody else. We want to get started [Saturday] and everybody hopes to be playing again next weekend.”
Right . . . but if UConn isn’t playing next weekend in the Final Four, that would be a shock.
Despite playing in an Albany Regional that includes South Carolina — last year’s national champion — that’s the undeniable truth when it comes to UConn, a program which has won 11 national titles, made 10 consecutive Final Four trips and boasts two winning streaks of 90 or more games in its history.
“Connecticut’s the best there’s ever been,” Duke head coach Joanne McCallie said.
UConn, which won its first game of the NCAA tournament by 88 points, highlights this weekend’s field for the Albany Regional. Buffalo (No. 11, 29-5) and South Carolina (No. 2, 28-6) start Saturday’s Sweet 16 action at 11:30 a.m., with UConn (No. 1, 34-0) and Duke (24-8, No. 5) scheduled to tip at 2 p.m. Winners of those games play 7 p.m. Monday for the chance to play in the Final Four.
This weekend’s Sweet 16 is the 25th in a row for the Huskies. Asked about that streak, Auriemma offered a sarcastic take on his team’s run of success that bordered on not being too far off from reality.
“I mean, I am surprised. After all, we have the best players. Every All-American that’s ever played high school basketball has come to Connecticut. They don’t go play anywhere else,” Auriemma said. “So we’re just fortunate there is no competition out there for us. Sometimes, we feel like we should just skip the first two rounds and go right to the regionals. It’s so easy, right?”
UConn, though, has made it look that easy.
Auriemma assured everyone it hasn’t been. He said it’s a surprise to him his team hasn’t suffered a “stumble once or twice” in the last 25 years.
“But it’s been a remarkable run through a lot of different players and a lot of different scenarios,” Auriemma said, “and at a lot of different places.”
The latest? Albany.
An unusual defense
Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack said her team describes itself as “quirky.”
It’s not difficult to see where the Bulls might get some of that trait.
Asked how her team plans to defend South Carolina senior A’ja Wilson, Legette-Jack had no problem divulging her squad’s game plan against the 6-foot-5 forward averaging 22..6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game.
“Tickle her,” said Legette-Jack, laughing and pantomiming her team’s supposed defensive strategy in case there was any confusion. “Everyone’s tried everything else and she’s still averaged a high double-double. So our plan is someone go low, someone go high, but, nevertheless, we’re into the tickling motion.”
Even if game officials allow that defense, Legette-Jack said she’s confident Wilson will figure out a way to get her points and rebounds. The Bulls, Legette-Jack said, know Wilson is too good to shut down.
“We are not going to stop her,” Legette-Jack said. “We are comfortable understanding that.”
She’s hoping her team avoids losing in the Sweet 16 against one of the tournament’s Cinderella stories, but South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is happy to see some mid-majors having success in this year’s women’s tournament.
“I think it’s good for the game,” Staley said. “Anytime that you can show some parity in our game, on any level, it’s always good.”
Auriemma, whose program has long dominated the NCAA women’s basketball landscape, offered a similar take.
“I think we’ve got a really good mix of teams here,” Auriemma said. “It’s a really interesting mix.”
In that regard, Buffalo’s goal is to keep things interesting for as long as possible.
“Forty minutes, anything can happen — and we want something magical to happen,” Legette-Jack said.
As for what Legette-Jack thinks about having her team’s postseason run called a Cinderella story? Her response was pretty much what you would expect from her.
“It makes me feel like they saw me dance before,” Legette-Jack said. “They know I can dance and I think that’s a compliment, you know? I’m teasing.”
Albany’s cool, but cold
Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medal winner, started her media availability with praise for the weekend’s host city.
“Excited to be a part of the Sweet 16, playing Buffalo and doing it here in Albany,” Staley said. “We got in yesterday, city seems pretty popping.”
Albany, though was deemed too cold for Staley to bring her puppy — a social media star named Champ — along this weekend.
“Champ is a warm-climate puppy,” Staley said, “so that’s why he didn’t make the trip.”