2012 Final Four: Potent quotables from Saturday’s press conference
Q. If you could each take this one on, can you just talk about the sisters over at Stanford and what kind of matchup they present? And, Brittney, specifically can you talk about how remarkable that you and Neka have not really met in college basketball and how much you’re looking forward to that matchup?
BRITTNEY GRINER: Looking forward to it a lot. I haven’t seen Neka or Chiney since high school, since summer ball. They play remarkable together. That sister instinct for each other on the floor at high/low. We’re going to have to guard them and keep them off the guards.
DESTINY WILLIAMS: We expect a good matchup. They have two outstanding post players; we have a bunch of outstanding post players. It’s going to be a great matchup. I think it’s going to come down to who rebounds the ball well. Both posts will get great touches and finish around the rim. It’s going to be an exciting game.
Q. Brittney, Neka told us that you had played against her in an AAU game somewhere around her junior year, and she said that her team?? that your team won. What are your recollections of that game?
BRITTNEY GRINER: It was a good game. I mean, it was just a good matchup. Me and her going back and forth. I can’t wait to do it again.
Q. Destiny and Odyssey. Destiny, everybody’s asking Brittney a lot of things, but you have to?? you guys practice together. How would you stop her and how difficult is the play against her in practice?
DESTINY WILLIAMS: Well, she has a very, very, very, very long arm. So?? (laughter)?? so it is hard to get a shot off over her. But she helps us out a lot to get our shots off quicker, to go around her and try to finish the contact.
There’s a lot of things. You have to take off the dribble, because you’re not going to post up and score over her. Just things like that. And being more physical towards her. She helped us out a lot in our game only to make us better players.
Q. I just wanted to?? if you could give us an update on how your health is and how the inflammation is at the moment?
COACH MULKEY: Don’t ask me to smile. And I think the distortion of the face is mild compared to cases I have seen before.
The biggest problem I’m having is my eyes. The light bothers me. The tears and the dryness and itchiness they say is all a part of it. And my ears. I feel like one ear is blown out and I can’t tell if the other one is hearing or if it’s just off balance.
As far as the distortion or whatever you want to call it of the face, hell, I’m just another ugly coach (laughter). It is what it is. And I’m not vain, so it doesn’t matter.
Q. On the health thing. You said the lights. When you’re??
COACH MULKEY: Like right now it bothers me.
Q. On the court, how is it?
COACH MULKEY: It’s not as bright. The only thing that bothered me on the court was the band when I was on that end. My ears feel like they’re about to explode. I’m sure some referees feel that way when I get in their ear. (Laughter).
Q. Are you going to ask the band not to play as much?
COACH MULKEY: Are you kidding me? I’m going to let that band rip it. Go for it.
Q. It’s great to hear you sound so positive about what you’re going through. Can you talk about how important that is to maintain a positive attitude with everything that’s going on?
COACH MULKEY: Listen, the alternatives are worse. Bell’s palsy is fixable. Bell’s palsy with time will get better. This is just a?? I guess you call it a little bump in the road.
I can assure you the spit that will fly out of my face in a timeout won’t faze them. Or the spit that will come out of my mouth, they’ll understand what I’m saying.
It’s really nothing. It hasn’t affected them. It hasn’t affected me. It aggravates me. It aggravates me, but there are worse things in life. And you just deal with it. Kidney stone would hurt a lot worse than this. Having a baby didn’t hurt near as bad as a kidney stone. You deal with it.
Every male in here needs to have a kidney stone. It’s the closest thing to child birth for y’all, so y’all need a kidney stone.
Go ahead. Didn’t mean to distract you.
Q. That focus that has marked the season for you guys, have you seen it sustained through this time since getting to Denver?
COACH MULKEY: I just told them at half court that that hour of practice was?? of course you’re not out there showing your hand on anything. It’s more for the fans. But I saw a focused basketball team. I saw a team that came and they’re enjoying being out there. But at the same time, they focused on finishing, shooting.
Look, it’s beyond coaches now. The coaches have gotten each of their teams here. It’s now in the players’ hands. It’s now players making plays.
The big stage is when the big?time players surface. It’s not about coaching at this point.
Q. When evaluating the season and looking back up to this point, are there any moments that stand out for you where had they gone a different way you either may not be here or the season would have gone differently?
COACH MULKEY: That moment was not this year. It was when we lost in the Regional Finals in Dallas last year and those kids came back to summer school. And obviously we can’t be with them during the summer. But I just felt that our strength and conditioning coach, who was with them all summer, and the leadership that came back, the disappointment, the hunger, all that was taken care of this summer.
I thought team chemistry was a missing link last year, not that we didn’t have a team that didn’t get along, but we had a freshman trying to lead a basketball team to a Final Four. We had our best player just a sophomore. We had our senior, our captain, our leader, our glue, playing with one eye.
The timing of Melissa Jones’ injury honestly cost us. And that’s not to take anything away from Texas A&M, because they just beat us. But I sure can’t afford to go into a big game like that when your glue and really your leader is struggling to even stay on the floor because of her injury, let alone worry about leading a basketball team.
I thought last year’s game just is the only game that I could tell you sent a message to themselves. You can go one direction or you can go the other.
Q. What have you guys learned from the past Final Fours and the disappointment that you can apply here this weekend?
TONI KOKENIS: I think last year we learned that like we need to play for all 40minutes. We kind of let the game slip away from us at the end.
Just really picking up our defense is something we’re focusing on, and we’ve kind of let down a little bit in the second half in our past Final Four games, and teams have scored more than they should in the second half, which kind of hurt us.
So we’re definitely focusing on defense and just finishing games and focusing for all 40minutes.
NNEMKADI OGWUMIKE: I totally agree with Toni. I think also it kind of has a lot to do with having fun, and our team is really good at having fun. And we’re also good at staying poised. We don’t panic. I think that’s a really good quality for our team. But, most importantly, playing for 40minutes is really what it’s down to.
Q. Neka, the other day you used words?? you talked about the last couple of experiences here at the Final Four. You said two years ago you were devastated. Last year it was really annoying, I think was the word that you used, the way you guys finished up. So you’re here now again and this is your last chance at it. What is your?? what is your feeling kind of going into these last?? potentially last two games, and how much do you want to get this done?
NNEMKADI OGWUMIKE: Surprisingly enough, I’m very calm. I’ve been calm?? I was probably the most stressed maybe against South Carolina, I think. I don’t know. And I was also pretty nervous for the Hampton game.
But coming into the Final Four, I’m kind of taking it one day at a time, one minute at a time, enjoying the times I have with my coaches and my team.
I’m not trying to go overboard and be too ecstatic, but I’m very happy. I’m so grateful that I’m here. Grateful for the awards that have been given to me and Chiney and all the girls participating in the Final Four, and I’m just enjoying every moment. I got to catch up with friends at the banquet yesterday.
And it’s kind of tranquil for me right now. I’m not even worried. And I know when it comes down to it, when I step on to the court, I just go out there and have fun and I play as hard as I can.
Q. Neka and Chiney, how would you describe Brittney Griner’s development over the last few years, and how difficult exactly is it to guard somebody like that without getting in foul trouble?
NNEMKADI OGWUMIKE: I can’t say that I’ve been watching every one of her games, but I definitely think that since she came out in high school she’s definitely gotten better.
I just mentioned this to someone earlier. She’s not just big, she’s athletic, and she has skills, which makes that kind of a triple dagger. But it’s going to be a challenge, and I’m excited. I’m stepping up to it, and I know our entire team is as well.
It’s going to be a collaborative effort. But I think that with the belief in ourselves that we’ll be just fine. If we follow our rules, Tara and the coaching staff has done a really great job of helping us figure out our defensive plan, but at this point I’m just?? I was excited from Selection Monday that Baylor was on our side, and I’m so happy we get to play them, especially with me being a senior. I don’t want to say that I didn’t get to play her before I left, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
CHINEY OGWUMIKE: I think growing up in Houston we were miles apart, Nimitz, Cy?Fair, and even Dulles with Kelsey Bone. So we grew up together. We played in the same basketball tournaments. Funny we never ever played Nimitz High School, but I always saw her play against Dulles and Kelsey. It was a nice little circle we had supporting each other knowing that we had hopes of playing DI.
But just seeing how far she’s come, I remember the first time I saw the YouTube video, it was on the local news, I went to sleep that night and it was like, The phenom that can dunk, and it was just dunking, but then to see her game evolve and expand and going right, left, finishing outside of the paint, it’s been great because it shows how much people can develop in basketball.
And it’s going to be a challenge, definitely. And I think we’re all excited. The only way you can approach something like this is you’re all in, we’re all in, and we’re going to do to counter what she brings.
Q. Tara, how do you compare your personal desire to win a third national title compared to the one?? the desire to win your first one way back when?
COACH VANDERVEER: I think I realize how much harder it is. When we went the first time in 1990 and won the Regional, I was happy. I just thought: This is it; I don’t need anything more. Then when we got to the Final Four, I’m like: Wow, who knows if you’re ever coming back and let’s try and get it.
We did win the first time, and then we’ve gone back several times, and it’s really, really demanding. A lot of things have to go right. And I look at years that we’ve been with the last five years, and really getting to the championship game in 2008 and we didn’t really play that well in the second half especially against Tennessee. But they took it to us.
I think that we realized kind of there’s a whole big difference between the semifinal game and the final game, and then the next year we didn’t have really?? I don’t think we matched up really well with Connecticut that year and they were on a mission. ’10 was playing Connecticut in the championship game, and I think that game, again, had?? we had a good shot at halftime, and then they just had a little run that got away from us. And then last year not getting the championship game, we had an opportunity and just didn’t?? we didn’t do what we needed to do.
So I think that the experience that all of our players have had, our staff has had, you know, we want it as bad as anyone this year. Our team wants it as bad. Our staff wants it as bad. We’re working as hard or harder than anyone. So we know we just have to do the right things.
Q. Can you put into words, Coach, what Neka has meant to this program?
COACH VANDERVEER: I could put them in words, but you don’t have enough paper and ink to print them all. I’ll give you an idea. When we signed Neka, I had two new assistants, Bobbie Kelsey and Kate Paye and then Amy Tucker had been at Stanford. And I bought each one of them a GPS. I said, We’re going in the right direction.
It’s like she is an amazing young woman. She’s improved so much from her freshman year until now, and she will continue to improve. But more than that, she’s a solid person. How many coaches can say they’ve coached someone for four years and they’ve never had one minute of getting upset with them, being mad at them, having to have a parent?? or coach/player or daughter word with them.
She’s just outstanding. And it’s why you coach. Everyone’s out there looking for a player like Neka, and she’s sitting right next to me.
Q. GPS, you bought one for Neka or??
COACH VANDERVEER: The coaches. Neka, I’d be in trouble with. For Amy, Kate, and Bobbie. That was in the old days before they had them on your phone.
Q. Baylor’s favored tomorrow. And you’re not underdogs very often and you’re probably underdogs in at least three of the four previous Final Fours. Psychologically, do you do anything with the kids to kind of prepare them to play a team that is considered superior than you guys?
COACH VANDERVEER: Yes. I mean, I think it’s true. I don’t think we go into so many games where we’re expected to win, and as Baylor does and as Connecticut does and as Tennessee or Notre Dame, but we go into games where we’re expected to win and then even if we win by 20, that wasn’t good enough.
But this game, there might not be anyone in this room besides me that thinks we are going to win. So we do some special things.
Q. Brittany, after eight times in 14months, is there anything about UConn that you don’t know, and do you think there’s anything about them about you guys that they don’t know?
BRITTANY MALLORY: Not really. Like Coach said, there’s no mystery left. There’s not going to be any surprises. It’s all about heart, who is going to play the hardest, who is going to execute and play well.
Q. Skylar, along those lines, is it good or bad that you know this team inside out; they know you guys inside out? Maybe for the Final Four you come in prepared, but you already know everything about them?
SKYLAR DIGGINS: Like Brittany said, it’s a matter of execution now. We watched them over and over, and I’m sure they have done the same, and now it’s just a matter of can we stop those plays that we know they’re going to run, can they stop our plays, who is going to get more hustle?back plays, 50/50 balls, rebounding, stopping them in transition, and just executing our offensive and defensive game plan.
Q. Skylar and Brittany, because of the frequency that you played UConn, would you consider them your biggest rival?
BRITTANY MALLORY: Within the Big East, I would say so. We’ve played each other so many times, it’s been No.8 in the past two years. I mean, there’s a lot of heart between these two teams, when we go out, we just want to play hard and win and come out on top. And every time you match up with them, you know it’s always going to be a battle. So it’s become a rivalry.
Q. Skylar, can you talk about what the focus of the deciding factor was the last time you guys played Connecticut?
SKYLAR DIGGINS: Hustle plays. Those hustle plays. They kept balls alive. They got offensive rebounds. Second?chance points. Transition. Just hustle plays for them. They outhustled us.
Q. What would you guys say has been the most important moment this year where maybe if things would have gone a different way you wouldn’t have been here?
SKYLAR DIGGINS: I don’t know. I have to say when we lost to West Virginia. It kind of was an eye?opener for us. Definitely humbled us a lot. We’ve been on a roll. In the Big East, I think it shows that you can’t overlook anybody or underestimate anybody. And that’s what happens.
We played a lot of good teams, a lot of tough games. I think that one really made us turn it up. And we had close games. I think a lot of games do that. So I think we had more drive after we lost to Baylor. I think we had close games with Duke and just a lot of good teams that we played.
Q. It seems when UConn lost to you guys in the last game of the regular season, they were disoriented and sort of lost. But then they found themselves and they’ve been on a run ever since. You guys lost to them in the Big East Tournament Final, and then that was sort of running through and got refocused. Did that game help you guys? A loss is never good, obviously, but did it help you get the team ready and make the run back at the NCAAs?
COACH MCGRAW: I think it did help us in some ways. I don’t think refocus is maybe the word with this group, because I think they’re pretty focused.
But I think coming off a loss, you just get a little hungrier. I think it definitely motivated us to get back in the gym, work hard, and just prepare for the NCAA Tournament.
Q. Being here for the second year, how is this team different than the team that you brought to the Final Four and the championship game last year, and in what ways?
COACH MCGRAW: You know, I think we’re really similar to that team. We returned four starters, and I think the veteran core group that we had, along with Natalie Achonwa, really was well prepared.
I think last year coming in to the Final Four as the underdog and the upset coming in, it was like a Cinderella story. And I think there was a completely different mindset.
This year, coming in as the No.1 seed, I think it’s a little more businesslike. So I think that’s the biggest difference.
Kayla McBride, of course, for Becca Bruszewski is the trade we mailed. Kayla’s having a fantastic year. She brings the excitement. This is the first tournament for her, so it’s different looking through her eyes.
Q. What do you see as the biggest difference in UConn the way they’re playing now as opposed to the February27th game?
COACH MCGRAW: I think Tiffany Hayes is playing better. I think Bria Hartley?? you know, I think Faris is looking to score more in the NCAA Tournament than she did before, a little more aggressive.
Bria Hartley to me is just?? she’s really good. I really like her. I think she really runs the team and does so many things well. And I think she’s a huge key to their success.
Q. What were the things that you did differently as a team in the last time you played Notre Dame that you didn’t do the first two games?
KELLY FARIS: I think one of the big things is that we had a bunch of individuals step up at different times. And I think we’ve been doing that a lot more recently in the last few games.
But, specifically, I think it started in that last Notre Dame game, we just had?? like I said, it was just each individual at different pivotal points in the game just stepped up and we didn’t rely on just one person.
TIFFANY HAYES: I agree with Kelly. I also think we just wanted it more. We were tired of losing to the same team over and over again.
And I definitely think we hustled a lot more in that game, a lot more hustle plays, a lot of togetherness in that game. So I think that definitely helped us out a lot.
Q. Connecticut, the UConn brand is so huge. This is my fifth Final Four and this is your fifth for the school. But it’s not the same team this year. It’s been a little bit more vulnerable than it has when Maya’s been there. How has that been as far as the mindset, not?? maybe Baylor is the big dog now and you guys aren’t?
TIFFANY HAYES: I think it’s good for us that all of us are able to step up in one night and we don’t just have one person doing everything. So there’s no superstars on our teams. We’re all superstars, because any given night one of us could score 20 if need be.So I think it works out in our favor.
KELLY FARIS: I agree. I think it took us a little bit to kind of grasp that concept that we don’t have the superstar on our team that we can rely on. I think we’ve been kind of used to that the last few years.
So it’s good, though. I think it’s all coming together at the right time. And, like Tiffany said, it definitely works out to our advantage, I think.
Q. Has it been easier with this team because of the kind of tenacious defense that you play, that that starts, that ignites everything else that goes on with the rhythm of the game?
KELLY FARIS: Well, ever since I got here, defense is obviously what we take most pride in. So I think that’s every year day in, day out we work on defense. And especially this year, I think a lot of our offense we try to get it to stem from our defense, whether we get a lot of pressure and turnovers and get out in fastbreak.
So it’s good because we play?? obviously we play a lot of 4 guards, and we can be a faster team, get up and down the floor a lot quicker.
Q. So much to talk about familiarity and how you guys know each other inside and out and eight times in two years and whatever it may be. But what’s the biggest thing for you guys to win tomorrow night? Because it’s probably not going to be the plays, because you know what you run; you know what they run. But what’s the biggest thing you guys have to do to be successful and get to the championship again?
COACH AURIEMMA: Notre Dame has three losses this year. And I don’t know the other two, the box score. But I know in a game where we played at their place, in the game we played in the Big East championship game, we rebounded the ball and we kept them off the free?throw line. And I think if we do those two things well tomorrow night, then we’ll be in good shape.
Notre Dame is maybe the best team in the country at getting to the free?throw line. And I would think that more than anything else that might be the key to the game; to make sure that they have to make shots rather than just give them free throws.
And offensive rebounding and shooting free throws go hand in hand, because every time you give up an offensive rebound, you end up fouling the guy who is going back up with it.
So those two things in my mind are going to be the keys for us anyway.
Q. How confident or not confident were you through the course of the season that you guys would end up here?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, before the season, at Connecticut, it’s kind of tantamount to treason if you say we’re not going to win a national championship. And it’s something even worse than that if you say I don’t think we can get to the Final Four.
So I actually thought when the season started, that when practice started, anyway, that a lot of things would have to go right for us to get to this point where we are right now.
And in November I thought we had a chance. And in December I thought we had a chance. And as January and February came around, I thought we had no chance, because our immaturity just kept popping up.
I mean, every time we had a chance to prove how mature we were, we were immature. But, unlike other places, we just kept winning. So it added to the frustration. I knew we were immature, I knew we were doing lots of things we’re not used to seeing at Connecticut, but we were was winning, and it took a couple of losses for us to finally understand that we needed to grow up and we needed to grow up quickly.
So it wasn’t until the Big East tournament that I really, really thought we had a shot at this thing. And once the Big East tournament ended, I thought we’ve got as good a shot as anybody of winning this thing.
Q. Wanted to follow up with what Michel was asking you. Since the Big East Tournament, in the last three weeks, what have you really liked about how the team has responded to what you wanted all season?
COACH AURIEMMA: The number one thing that a player has to have to be successful is confidence. And the one thing this team lacked was confidence. They pretended and they acted like they had it, but it was fake. And every chance I got in practice I wanted to kind of try to shake their confidence. And I always kept winning. And it bothered me that this year more than other years I kept winning more than I normally win, and I usually win all the time in practice.
But at least the other teams got sick and tired of me winning and would fight back. This team just kind of took it on the chin and just said, okay, Coach you win, fine. The more they did that, the more I got pissed. I’m like, How are we ever going to get beyond just being mediocre, just being good? We can’t operate like this.
These guys just?? they take getting beat at practice. They take it way too casually. There isn’t this?? they’re not incensed about losing. And I’ve had teams in the last four, five, 15, 20years that if they didn’t get a question right on a crossword puzzle before you did, they want to choke you.
So I wasn’t used to this. And it wasn’t until, again, that last week of the season that it started to affect them. And after we won the Big East Tournament, they don’t react that way anymore. Something clicked that week between the last regular season game and the start of the tournament.
And what we did during that week was we went to practice and I made them force the issue, so that for the next five days everything we did was about building confidence in ourselves and in each other to the point where we could trust ourselves and trust each other.
When you had this many young players?? I don’t know how many sophomores are starting tomorrow for either team. We have two. And I don’t know how many freshmen are coming off the bench and playing huge roles tomorrow. We have two, maybe three.
So we’re counting on people that haven’t done all the things that they hope to do. And with that comes, as I said, a lot of immaturity and a lot of mistrust. If you’re Kelly Faris and you operate at a certain level from having won a national championship and being undefeated and now you’re having to deal with players who just don’t understand what it takes to do that, I think it creates a little bit of doubt in your mind about whether you can trust your teammates.
And, like Kelly said, ever since the first game of the Big East Tournament, that’s gone. And I think you’ll see that tomorrow.
Q. When you’re talking about building the team’s confidence during that five?day stretch, I wonder if you can offer a specific example of what you or the coaches did to do that. How do you do that in practicality?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, think about this. I’ll go back to my father, God rest his soul. He only knew how to drive?? he got his license, I think, when he was 60 because all the guys who used to drive him around died, I think. So he needed a way to get around, and I left home, so he was stuck. And he only knew how to drive from my house to where he worked and my house to where he went to hang out with the guys on Friday nights and drink coffee.
So when my mother would ask him to take him someplace, he would refuse, and then she would make him because it was someplace where he didn’t know how to get to. So he would eventually get to an intersection, stop, three or four lights would go by, people were honking, everything, he would turn around and go home.
When you’re scared and you don’t know what to do, you just stop and stand there and you don’t want to make any moves. You don’t want to make any decisions because you’re afraid to make the wrong one. So you go back to what is safe for you.
And that’s what my team had become during the whole month of February. During the whole month of February we were a team that stood around and waited for something to happen because we started to be afraid.
So those five days of practice, every practice was about us attacking things rather than waiting. So the way you saw us play in the Big East Tournament, first couple of rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Regionals, we were constantly on the attack. We were constantly the aggressor.
So what we did as a coaching staff, we took the thought process out of it and just put the action back into our team instead of the thinking.
And I’m hoping that tomorrow we can carry through on that. Because the worst thing for a young kid to do, all the young kids we have on our team, is to be thinking about what to do. And I thought that’s where we were.