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Denise Maloof | | April 6, 2015

The UConn standard

Final Four: Huskies hot against Maryland

TAMPA, Fla. -- The monolith that is Connecticut women’s basketball isn’t built on one or two great recruiting classes, luck or even momentum.

To outsiders, the top-ranked Huskies, who meet No. 2 Notre Dame in the 2015 NCAA Division I national title game, proceed with treadmill-like precision -- and treadmill-like insertion of one high school All-American whiz after another, some might say. While all those factors are important, it’s not that simple.

Heading into Tuesday’s showdown (a rematch of the 2014 title game), the Huskies and head coach Geno Auriemma face significant history, all staged by the program’s previous 29 seasons under Auriemma.

That’s not something sustained by luck or even momentum.

UConn is playing in its eighth consecutive Final Four and 16th overall. If the Huskies prevail, they’ll win their third consecutive NCAA title and 10th under Auriemma. The latter means tying Auriemma with ULCA legend John Wooden, who owns an NCAA-record 10 basketball titles.

While he acknowledges the humility of such a thing -- all that -- Auriemma doesn’t care quite yet.

“This isn't something that's going to last forever,” he said during Monday’s media sessions at Amalie Arena. “Not going to win every single championship game that we're in, if we're in some more. But up to this point, man, it is something that's really hard to explain.  And I'm just incredibly grateful.”

Auriemma’s peers claim he does sustenance as well as anything. At this level, Xs and Os and their mastery are givens. Pairing strategy, experience and work ethic with talent has, as of this moment, rendered UConn the sport’s standard, a position that’s been self-sustaining since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when UConn reeled off three consecutive national titles (2002-2004).

“It's a blend of everything,” said Maryland head coach Brenda Frese, whose No. 4-ranked Terrapins were pounded 81-58 by UConn in Sunday’s second national semifinal. “Obviously Geno is the best of the best.  He's a phenomenal coach. I think as you talk about our talent pool, you know, I liken it to Kentucky men except for the fact that UConn's able to get, every year, a top-10 player. They don't lose them to the pros.

“When you're able to build that kind of roster and add the coaching in with what you're doing, to insert that into your lineup every year, it's huge, when you're able to build a roster like that.”

UConn’s current starting five includes only one senior -- sharpshooter Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a second-team All-American who leads the national in three-point shooting (49.4 percent).

Junior forward Breanna Stewart, UConn’s leading scorer and the consensus National Player of the Year last season, is another first team All-American selection this season.

One guard, Moriah Jefferson, is a junior and a second-team All-American. The other guard, Kia Nurse, is a freshman who’s a member of the Canadian Senior National Team.

Notre Dame seeks to upend the juggernaut that is UConn in a rematch of the title game from a year ago.
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During Monday’s media sessions, Auriemma recited his starters’ blue-blood, high school credentials, citing the caliber of UConn’s raw material.

“I don't think any of the coaches should apologize for getting the best players,” he said. “I think that's part of the job description when you sign up to be a coach. A lot of coaches think it's noble and honorable to recruit bad players and make them better. I've been there. It sucks. You don't get to play in March when you have that kind of team.”

None of UConn’s five starters, nor their teammates who contribute off the bench, trot to center court and dump their accolades as part of a game plan. Instead, it starts in their head, according to their head coach, who stresses that his team play without fear of a loss.

“Once you get into March, you're not going to get a lot better physically,” Auriemma said. “We're not going to get bigger, quicker, faster, stronger.  If we sucked at guarding ball screens, we're not going to get a lot better at it. So it's more of that kind of mentality as opposed to anything else.”

Defeating the Husky monolith has become the rallying call for other top Division I teams and their fan bases, but until someone vanquishes UConn on the Final Four stage -- and perhaps not until it has been done repeatedly -- expect the UConn bullseye to expand.

“I just know that in our sport, from 1995 to today, what we've done against our peers is as good if not better than anybody else has done in their sport against their peers,” Auriemma said.  “I don't care whether it's harder in that sport or this sport or that sport. I understand all that. Don't get me wrong. But given the rules that we play with, with all the people we compete against, I'm pretty proud we've done it the way we've done it for as long as we've done it.”

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