It’s been 25 years since Geno Auriemma took Connecticut to the Women’s Final Four for the first time.
When UConn meets Oregon State at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 3, the Huskies will be making their ninth consecutive Final Four appearance.
Yet, it never gets old for the Huskies.
“The trick in coming here is to make it feel like it’s the first time all the time,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes, that’s hard to do because everyone expects you to treat it like it’s the same old thing. I think you have to work hard at making sure it’s like the first time.”
Auriemma’s players share his sentiment. They are soaking up the experience, regardless of whether it is their first or fourth time playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“We don’t take any of this stuff for granted, and this could be the last one; we never know,” said sophomore guard Kia Nurse. “It’s fun to be in this environment with your teammates and have a good time, but at the same time we’re as focused as ever.”
It helps that there are always new faces each year — like freshmen Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier — who have never experienced the thrill of Final Four or hoisting a championship trophy above their heads.
“This is their first one, so this is not old hat and routine for them,” Auriemma said.
The rest of the Huskies never have had trouble creating a sense of “first-time” excitement either.
“Each year, there are different players and we have to work extremely hard during the year,” said senior guard Moriah Jefferson. “It might look easy on TV, but it’s not. We got through a lot and struggle a lot throughout the year, so every time we get here it’s amazing. We don’t take it for granted at all.”
While the hectic schedule of ESPN interviews, press conferences, the Salute Dinner and autograph sessions may be fun — and even grueling at times — the Huskies’ focus always returns to the game.
“We didn’t come to do media or go to a dinner or things like that,” said redshirt junior forward Morgan Tuck. “Every team, no matter how many times they’ve been here are here to play basketball. (The experience) can help because we don’t get caught up in it, but I think all of the teams are here for the games and not just the extra stuff.”
The three other teams in this year’s Women’s Final Four — Oregon State, Syracuse and Washington — are making their first-ever appearances. And to be sure, all three will be looking to emulate how the Final Four veterans have handled themselves over the years.
“I think they have been the blueprint,” said Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck. “I mean, who doesn't want to do what they're doing? We're all striving for that.”
Rueck, who led George Fox University to the Division III title in 2009, has watched UConn women’s basketball for years. He truly appreciates the high bar the Huskies have set.
“I look at them as an example,” Rueck said. “I always have. When I was a Division III coach, I was looking at UConn as an example.”
Washington head coach Mike Neighbors has done the same as he has developed his own program.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to watch UConn practice a couple times and it is absolutely incredible how much (Auriemma) and his staff gets out of that team on a daily basis,” Neighbors said. “Their attention to detail and their focus on ‘what’s important now.’ We brought that back to our team. Our WIN motto – ‘what’s important now’ has been a huge part of trying to win the next thing. I think their culture just oozes hard work.”
Oregon State senior guard Jamie Weisner knows that UConn demands respect for what it has accomplished this year and over the past couple decades.
“It's legendary,” Weisner said. “I would say it's even an honor to play against them. In 20 years, I can tell my kids that I played against that UConn team.”
But she and her teammates are also here to play their game — and win.
“You can't lose the game before you step foot on the court. And we know what we've done to get this far, and we just have to stick to that. We're going to go into it very prepared and fearless.”