Dawn Staley was a high school player in Philadelphia the day Geno Auriemma coached his first game at Connecticut. Look where they’ll be Sunday night:
The hottest coach of the present, the dynasty-builder of the past . . .
Two former Philly area kids who carry the hard noses and competitive fires of their home turf . . .
The last two standing for a championship game that asks a most unusual question . . .
Would you believe the Connecticut Huskies as an underdog story?
No chuckling, please. True, that certainly sounds like a major case of miscasting. Any program with 11 national championships has a hard sell as the plucky upstart. And yet, what team has had a busier medical staff this season than Connecticut? What locker room has endured more injuries and obstacles and setbacks to maintain its course, with eight players missing at least two games and their All-American out for nearly 12 weeks? Finally, outside the Huskies’ orbit, who thinks this is not South Carolina’s championship to lose Sunday night?
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Yep, that’s an underdog's tale, though it may seem a stretch to even put that phrase in the same paragraph with a coach who is 11-0 lifetime in national championship games.
Even Auriemma was sounding ever the realist after his team dodged and weaved and ducked any knockout punch from Stanford Friday night, committing 13 turnovers in the second half to nearly derail its own train. This has been a season that forced him to understand his limitations.
“Maybe every coach goes through this at some point, but for the longest time, I think what made us successful was I thought that I had the ability to bring any kid into my program and make them into exactly what I wanted them to be,” he said. “As each year has gone by, they have started to see the fallacy in that.
“I think this year . . . it’s hit me more than ever before that you can’t really change people that don’t want to change. You can’t change the team that’s in front of you. No matter how much you try, sometimes you just can’t. Because of circumstances, I think this year I’ve more times just thrown up my hands and said it is what it is and let’s deal with it and see what happens.
“So many years that we’ve come here we’ve been a No. 1. We had the best team going in, everybody knew it, and it was, let’s just go do our thing and I don’t think anybody is going to be able to beat us if we play our A game. This year I didn’t think any of that. I don’t think we’re the best team here. I don’t think we can win, even if we play our A game. We need help.”
The impressive South Carolina numbers can be lined up one after another, like landing lights for the final approach to what would be a season of domination and a relentless grip on No. 1 in the polls. They don’t seem like the work of a team that gives the opponent much help.
The 13-0 record against ranked teams, by an average scoring margin of 13 points.
The 34-2 overall record, with the two defeats by three total points.
The fact that in five NCAA tournament games over 200 minutes, the Gamecocks have trailed for only 6:09, and never by more than three points.
The 29 double-doubles for Aliyah Boston, punctuated by the 23 points and 18 rebounds she threw at Louisville Friday. That put her NCAA tournament average at 18 points and 15 rebounds. “How do we guard her?” Auriemma said Saturday. “I don’t know. I’m open to suggestions.”
ELITE: Boston's performance lifts South Carolina to the title game
Then there was November 22. South Carolina and Connecticut met that day in the Bahamas and it was all Gamecocks, at least when it counted. The Huskies went 1-for-10 and were outscored 16-3 in the fourth quarter and outrebounded 42-25 for the game. It ended 73-57. “Eons ago,” Staley said, and maybe it doesn’t matter now, but is not easy to dismiss how South Carolina turned into a steamroller that day.
What can counter such a deluge of glowing stats?
Well, Auriemma’s 11-0 record in title games is a truly staggering feat. “We’re 1-0,” Staley mentioned Saturday. “So we’re 100 percent, too.”
But even great teams — all great teams — are judged by their last game. His have been at Connecticut. Now it is her turn at South Carolina.
“I think we’re going to duke it out. There’s no edge,” Staley said. “The great season we’ve had, it’s not going to give us an edge tomorrow. We’ve got to play it. He’s not going to be thinking about, 'Oh, we’re 11-0, we got the 12th one in the bag.' We’re not going to be thinking, 'Oh, here’s UConn, we’re going to automatically win.' You can’t go into games thinking that way. You’ve got to play. And we’re going to play off of this year, we’re not going to play their history.”
The NCAA tournament will end with a duel of national championship coaches — one for her, 11 for him — who are Philly through and through in their tough-minded purpose toward competition.
Staley: “I would not be as successful as I am if I did not play sports because I learned all of it. I learned how to be a good friend. I learned how to work hard. I learned about what’s important. I probably learned that there is more to life than basketball because I was all basketball. From those experiences, and then when you win, it makes you more believable.”
Auriemma: “Maybe it’s because we were so close to New York, and we have this inferiority complex that we have to prove to everybody that we’re smarter and tougher and better than anybody else. I think all of us from that area carry that around.
“I said this before; Philadelphians, they cheer their champions better than anybody and they boo their champions better than anybody.”
So it’s the coaches who bring the will. It’s the players who bring the way.
“I don’t think I’ve won one national championship and I don’t think Dawn is going to win one, ether,” Auriemma said. “I think her team has a great chance to win a national championship. I think my team has a chance to win a national championship.
“I feel like once the game starts, you kind of relinquish 80 percent of the control to the players. You can coach the best game of your life and lose. You can make the most mistakes you’ve ever made coaching a game and your team will find a way to win. I’ve been in this situation a lot against a lot of coaches and I’ve taken the same approach with every single one. It’s not about me. It’s about them.”
Now he faces the coach who, possibly more than any other lately, has built a machine almost as imposing as his has been.
"I say what we said all season long: Our history over their history," Staley said. "It's not just UConn, it's just when we played anybody. Because when we've lost this season, it was a historical moment for our opponents. For Missouri, it was a historical moment for Kentucky. We need to choose our history. We want to imprint our history in the basketball history books."
Only one final designated victim is in the way of this juggernaut. Connecticut as Rocky. What a strange last curve in the road this season.