ALBANY — In recent years, his UConn women’s basketball program’s firm grip on the sport has weakened.
Geno Auriemma recognizes that.
Understands the inevitability of that change, too.
“We’ve been to, what, 11 straight Final Fours?” Auriemma said, correctly, after his team won Friday its Albany Regional semifinal against UCLA. “That’s . . . probably something that should be impossible to do in the real world of competitive sports. It should not be possible to go that many years in a row.”
In the future?
“It’s going to get much, much more difficult each and every year from here on in,” Auriemma said.
That future could arrive as early as Sunday. That’s when No. 2 UConn takes on No. 1 Louisville in the Elite Eight, the Albany Regional’s noon championship game, with the winner headed from Times Union Center to this year’s Final Four.
Louisville head coach Jeff Walz — whose team beat UConn in January — has described his team as Sunday’s underdog, an assertion that Auriemma met Saturday with a grin.
“I think Jeff is a little too old to be crying that they’re the underdog, you know?” said Auriemma, whose program was not granted a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006 and lost multiple regular-season games this season for the first time since the 2012-13 campaign.“We’re on a losing streak with them, you know? I mean, if that’s what they need or if that’s what he needs to get his team to that point, then I’m OK with that. I think it’s pretty funny. But I guess you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get your team ready to go. Any time I hear these stories, I get a kick out of it. You know, I mean, I don’t remember the last time we’ve been an underdog. Can anybody remember that, the last time somebody said Connecticut is the underdog? So maybe he’s going by that. We’ve just been the favorite so often. But I think we’re sitting on the wrong bench [Sunday], though, if we’re the favorite. They need to change the benches, and I think we’re wearing the wrong uniforms.”
UConn’s storied history, which includes 11 national championships, speaks for itself — and Louisville senior Sam Fuehring, one of the Cardinals’ stars, admitted Saturday it’s a bit surreal to play UConn on a big stage.
“I mean, I grew up — like, everyone wants to go to UConn because of how good they are,” said Fuehring, whose team topped Oregon State in Friday’s Sweet 16. “They’re a great program. Great team. They are the winningest. And, yeah, I feel like everyone — every young girl — would want to go there.”
“My junior year, I was being recruited by Louisville,” Fuehring said. “I ended up loving it, ended up learning to love Louisville, and I’m a big fan here now. Like, I’m all Louisville. It’s kind of like at first when you play UConn, you could be scared, but, then again, it’s like you grow, and you learn that you’re just as good as them, and that’s something that I’ve learned here at Louisville.”
For years, though, UConn seemingly had all the best players. While the Huskies are still loaded with talent, the playing field is starting to level out — and UConn’s matchup with Louisville will further demonstrate that, as the Cardinals boast a number of stars.
“But it still does come down to our best players have to outplay their best players. That’s the way it always works,” Auriemma said. “I’m not going to come up with a strategy [Saturday night] that’s going to make a big difference [Sunday] — [Walz] might, but I can’t.”
UConn was pushed, significantly, in its Sweet 16 game against UCLA. UConn trailed after three quarters in that game, but rallied in the fourth to pull away for a 69-61 win — its 16th consecutive victory. The program’s past success on the national level, UConn senior Katie Lou Samuelson said, still provides the Huskies with an inherent advantage.
“Yeah, I think when it came down to some of the closing minutes in the third and fourth quarter, it felt kind of like we know what we’re doing,” Samuelson said. “No matter what the score is right now, we have that confidence. We know what we’re good at — and you could kind of see it in the other team, too, that they know we’re UConn, as well. And that goes a long way because of what Coach has been able to do with this program. Being a part of it, you have to be a certain type of player and certain type of person that can handle that pressure and embrace it, but also use it to your benefit.”
Will his team take advantage of that benefit Sunday?
Auriemma said he’s eager — anxious, perhaps — to find out.
“It’s funny — this year, all the stereotypes and all the preexisting theories that I’ve heard, they just don’t seem to hold up for me,” Auriemma said. “Because this team that I’m coaching right now is really unpredictable, and it’s really quite different than any other team that I’ve coached in the last 10 or 11 years.”
Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.
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