TAMPA, Fla. -- As nine-time national champions can, Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma dropped an observational nugget during media sessions ahead of Sunday’s 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Final Four.
“I wish we would lose more,” Auriemma said Saturday, to audible murmurs. “I really do.”
Yeah, right. The quote master’s two-time defending national-champion Huskies meet Maryland in Sunday’s second national semifinal at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. They’re playing in their eighth consecutive Final Four.
Why does losing sound attractive?
Not on Sunday, however.
UConn is pursuing rare air. A third consecutive title would be Auriemma’s 10th overall in 30 seasons at the school, tying him with the legendary John Wooden for most Division I basketball titles. He already has the most titles in women’s Division I basketball.
His teams so rarely lose that it makes headlines when they do. An 88-86 overtime loss at Stanford on Nov. 17 in the season’s second game is this year’s only blemish thus far. And the Huskies (36-1) did have to roar back from a halftime deficit to beat Dayton in the Albany regional final to earn their latest Final Four berth.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, whose Gamecocks are playing in their first Final Four, says Auriemma’s observations tend to be strategic.
“He knows what buttons to push,” Staley said. “I think as far as his team and other people, I think he's calculating. I think he knows exactly how to get a rise out of people, and if you don't know him very well, you'll get yourself out of whack. But if you know him, you'll understand him.”
Perhaps Auriemma’s observations about losing were out-loud musing. He doesn’t need to push buttons this weekend. His players know why they’re here and what it takes, although he allowed part of that knowledge to spring from the early-season loss. But, it was more a reminder than a shake-up.
“I just don't want that or any other loss at Connecticut to be that's the reason why we're going to be good, or that's the reason why kids get better is because we played a team that played really, really well,” he said. “And I keep reminding my players, not using Stanford in particular, but keep reminding my players all the time that when you play, the team that plays the best that night is going to win if both teams are equally talented.”
This bunch of Huskies apparently get the message, as did their predecessors in the dynasty do. Junior All-American forward Breanna Stewart treats UConn’s outside perception -- the big dog all other teams wish to defeat -- as part of being a Husky.
“I don't really think we think about it like that,” Stewart said of enjoying the perennial favorite’s role. “We know that everyone wants to beat us, yeah, and it comes with the territory. We come to a program where we set the standard really high, and our goal is to get to the Final Four and to win championships. And we know that we always have a target on our backs.”
“They want to be in that role,” Auriemma said. “And we just kind of keep feeding into it as coaches and we keep pushing it forward and we try not to shy away from it. There’s no shying away from it. I mean, it is what it is. And you either embrace it and thrive in it or you wilt and you don't play.”
Speaking of playing, another championship trait seems to be the ability to don blinders, even when tempted by Florida weather, beaches and entertainment. Stewart sounded as if she and teammates were happier to be at a Saturday practice than near a swimming pool.
“This past week we've been looking towards getting here, and now that we're finally here in Tampa, there's a lot of other distractions to kind of take you away from playing basketball,” she said. “But we came here to play basketball, and that's what we want to do and it was nice to get on the court today.”
“What everybody wants to do right now is just play,” Auriemma said. “Everybody just wants game time to come and there's no more to prepare for, there's no more film to watch, there's no more practices to go to. Right now it's just about playing the game. And we know what the task at hand is. We know how good a team Maryland is. We know what we have to do.
“And we're anxious to get started.”
They’re almost there.