• November 29, 2021

Twas the night before the national championship: Geno Auriemma faces the media

Indianapolis, Indiana

THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by head coach Geno Auriemma from Connecticut. Coach, an opening statement.

COACH AURIEMMA: Well, you know, there’s always two parts to postseason. Three, actually. One, to get in; and, two, to get here; and, three, to be playing Tuesday night. So we’re fortunate that we took care of the first two and then we’ve got one last obstacle here.

And the hardest part is the anticipation, the waiting, and at least we know who we’re playing now. And I think the excitement of what’s happening tomorrow night is obviously on our team right now. You can feel it this morning.

And like I always say when I’m up here, we’re anxious to play. That’s the best part.

Q. With UConn on the doorstep of history with the chance to win a fourth straight national title, you’ve also talked about how difficult it is to win one national championship. In the event that UConn succeeds tomorrow, do you wonder if the uniqueness, the things that made this season this season will get bundled up in that four-straight national title talk and not be recognized for its own merit?
COACH AURIEMMA: I don’t think so. That’s what I was thinking when you were saying that. This particular team is its own entity. And this is their one opportunity to win a national championship. So if we had Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley and Kaleena and Kelly Faris and all those other guys, we would say, wow, you know, these guys are unbelievable.

But it’s not that. It’s not that. It’s this particular team with this group of individuals and we happen to have three seniors that have been there for the other three. But we’re trying to treat it as it’s for this particular team. And keep the focus the way we kind of have all season long and not get — I mean, they know it. And after it’s over, I guess it will be placed where it needs to be placed, I don’t know. But right now the focus is just on this particular team right now.

Q. Connecticut’s run of championships coincides with the birth and growth of the WNBA. Do you take some satisfaction or gratification in seeing UConn’s contributions to the pro game?
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah, yeah. That ’95 season was really one for the ages, you know, no matter what we do now or in the future, there will never be the hysteria that surrounded that particular season. And the fact that that was followed immediately by the Olympics in Atlanta and then immediately with the WNBA, I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve had so many great players impact that league since day one. And it didn’t exist when Rebecca Lobo came to Connecticut, and since then kids dream about playing in that league.

And maybe one of the reasons they come to Connecticut is to play in that league. So we’ve done some amazing things in the last 20 years. And for the WNBA, a woman’s professional basketball league to still be in existence 20 years later and doing well, we should all be proud of that.

Q. On the teleconference last week you were asked what does it mean to have the school make its first Final Four run, and you said the next five seasons are what matters. Can they come back? So I’m curious, what does women’s basketball need to look like in five years to grow the game? Do you need new Final Four participants every year? Do these three teams need to come back a lot? Does someone need to emerge as a team that can regularly challenge you?
COACH AURIEMMA: Five years from now?

Q. Yes.
COACH AURIEMMA: Any other three schools and us would be perfect. (Laughter.) Preferably a different three every year, that would be my idea. That would be perfection. It’s unrealistic to think that there’s going to be a different set of people at the four in Final Four every year on a regular basis. It just doesn’t happen in sports.

We all talk about is there parity. Look at men’s college basketball. You know what caused parity, guys leaving for the NBA. As guys stay in the league now, who is in the Final Four, generally speaking? So the fact that players can stay for four years makes it hard for people to break through.

Now, what will help that is — and it’s already happened, don’t get me wrong, it’s already happened, where you have 20 years ago in 1995 — I may have said this — you know, when we were recruiting Rebecca Lobo, there may have been ten kids in the country that you knew if you got one or two of those kids you had a chance to have a great team. Well, they all went to two schools, three schools, four schools, five maybe. Five schools got two each. So it was really hard for everybody else to break through.

So now there may be 25 of those kids. I’ll even give you 30. But they go to 25 schools. So there’s no great teams that can dominate every year. But a few — like Notre Dame, for instance. But now there’s a Syracuse. There’s a Washington, an Oregon State, a South Carolina, a UCLA, you name it, that all of a sudden have made themselves way better than they ever were. We need more good players coming out of high school and they need to be coached better. And once those two things coincide, I really do think from a historical perspective what UCLA men were doing in the late ’60s, early ’70s is where we’re at today. I mean, this NCAA Tournament didn’t start until 1983, I think, right? So we’re really, really young in our history. So we’re probably where they were.

And a lot’s happened since then, and I think a lot will happen. But I think you’re always going to have a dominant or two dominant teams that you need to have. If you’ve got four new teams every year, I don’t know that it creates the national interest you want. There’s always got to be somebody here that half the people want to win again and the other half can’t wait for anybody but them to win.

Q. You’ve had some great 3-point shooting teams. Syracuse is breaking every 3-point record in the NCAA Tournament. What’s so special about those three players and how dangerous are they because of their ability to shoot the 3?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, it’s a real odd situation, because during the regular season that wasn’t the case. Maybe I’m missing the boat here. But during the regular season they took a lot. And they missed a lot of them. But that’s what’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. You only have to make them for three weekends. And since the first weekend they’ve been making them. And they’re not shy about taking them, obviously. I think they averaged 30 a game. So the 3-point shot is one of the best weapons and maybe the greatest weapon in all of basketball. And it can make you win a national championship and it can make you lose a national championship.

And I think defensively guarding the 3 becomes the most important thing you have to do and the hardest thing you have to do. And right now those guys are on a roll. And they’re shooting it with a lot of confidence. We’ll have to figure out a way to minimize that. I don’t know that you can completely eliminate it, but I think we’re going to have to figure out a way to minimize it tomorrow night.

Q. It’s rare when a kid comes into a school and says her goal is to win four titles in four years, especially for a freshman to do that. Usually you hear that in the pros. Maybe not in college. And then she’s backed it up getting you one game away from it. And last night she said you guys can go out with a win tomorrow. Which again is rare to hear in college sports. Just your thoughts on her making that goal four years ago and now backing it up and potentially doing it tomorrow?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, I just hope she has more national championships than fouls tomorrow night. That would help us a lot. Dodo. You know, maybe she said it because she knew she had Mo and Tuck. And there’s some comfort in that.

But having said it and now being on the verge of being able to do it, those are amazing things that it’s like a storybook. You couldn’t — if you wrote it, they would think it was a made-for-TV novel or something, miniseries. Just doesn’t happen that way. It doesn’t happen that way. And the fact that she’s got close to it and Moriah is that close to it and Tuck is that close to it, you just got to admire it. Really do.

You have to admire her. She’s got a lot of guts, Stewy does. And you know what we talk about on our team a lot is courage. And it takes a lot of courage sometimes to say certain things and to be able to do certain things. And we’ve tried to explain to them that old saying that Winston Churchill said, courage is grace under fire. It’s not the absence of fear, it’s being able to do what you have to do while you’re afraid. And I think Stewy has been as good as anybody that’s ever played basketball at being able to do exactly what she has to do while being afraid.

Q. With Diana, Maya and Stewy, we can see what they’re great at. With each woman, could you talk about the biggest thing she had to conquer in order to reach greatness while she was playing with you?
COACH AURIEMMA: The whole thing about your greatest strength being your greatest weakness, that’s — for all three of them that really rings true. I remember Diana’s comment when somebody asked her: Why would you go to Connecticut when they have three All-Americans at the position that you want to play? And she said: If they didn’t have them, I wouldn’t want to go there.

So right away you know she’s telling you: I’m going there because I’m better than them. So that was her greatest strength. And initially as a freshman what she had to overcome was no, you’re not. But you will be. And little by little she did.

And Maya was — Maya was like — she’s like a corporation, like built from top to bottom, like this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it, and nothing’s going to get in my way. And Maya had to learn to play with four other really good players on her team. Because Maya always wanted to do everything by herself. And she thought she could do everything by herself and win it all by herself.

And after we lost in Tampa, she came in my office the next week and sat down on the couch and she goes: I just realized I can’t do this. I said: Really? You just realized that this is five-on-five and not — and, again, she did. And she’s won probably as much if not more than anybody and continued to win.

And then this one, Stewy, Stewy, like I just said about courage, Stewy pretends like she’s humble and nice and kind and would rescue cats from trees. That’s the impression she wants you to have. And you look at her when she walks out on the court and she doesn’t look like Maya. She’s not built like a great player. So everything about her is deceptive, including the fact that all of us see a different side of her.

And we’ve had to — we’ve had to impress upon Stewy that things are not as easy as you make them look. And the minute you think that they’re as easy as you make them look, then we’re going to have a problem. And a lot of times her freshman year she wanted it to be easy. And when it wasn’t, she couldn’t deal with it. And now she embraces when it’s hard. She’s the first one now to talk about, hey, this is going to be hard, but we got it.

And if I could put something of all three of them together, but then every coach probably thinks that, too.

Q. With the following that Syracuse has, what would be the significance, do you think, of them being really good year after year?
COACH AURIEMMA: Significance in the big picture or in Syracuse in their league? Well, I’ve always said that women’s basketball has a hard time being great in big cities, because of the competition. So when you’re in a city like Syracuse, where the men’s team is the pro franchise and they lead the country in attendance every year, can that spill over into women’s basketball, absolutely. Absolutely. No question about it. Because it’s a captive audience.

So if every year they were a threat to win the national championship or compete at their level, like their men are, I don’t know that they’re going to get 29,000 soon at the Carrier Dome, but I can see them doing what South Carolina’s done. Just (snapping fingers), couple years it happened in South Carolina. Can it happen there? No question about it. I’m just glad it didn’t happen five years ago.

Q. You were talking previously about how valuable having been an assistant was at Virginia and helping prepare you become a head coach. What, in particular, was important about that time and was there anything that you learned from Debbie that you still apply today?
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah. I was just thinking about this when I was watching one of the NCAA games and it dawned on me my four years at Virginia I was probably surrounded by the greatest collection of coaches ever at one school. And I took advantage of it as much as I could. You know, the way that Debbie put the program together, from nothing to a national championship contender. And just her organizational skills.

And my next-door neighbor was Bruce Arena, the World Cup and Olympic coach. And his assistant was Bob Bradley, the next World Cup coach. And upstairs we had Terry Holland, Jim Larrañaga, and Dave Odom, three pretty good coaches. And I remember every day and every year it seemed like somebody new would come on board, and when Rick Carlisle started coaching after we finished playing, the only downside probably was when Seth Greenberg joined the staff and we had to listen to him. But that was okay.

So my four years there, I probably learned more about coaching and about doing things program-wise and how to handle the expectations of a place like UVA where you’re expected to be great. And I also learned how to embrace greatness, because we live with it every day. We were convinced we were at the best school. We got the best kids academically, and we aspired to be the best at everything. And I came away from there thinking this is exactly how I’m going to do it. I’m going to take a little bit from every one of those people and see what happens.

Q. Rightfully so, so much attention’s paid to the three seniors. But Katie Lou Samuelson, arguably going to be a next great one, suffers an injury to knock her out of the national championship game. How do you walk her through and help her handle the psyche of that? Probably like two years from now we’ll be looking back and asking her questions about this day. How do you walk her through something that she’s enduring right now?
COACH AURIEMMA: I’ve never been through it where it happens on that stage. We’ve been hit by injuries leading up to this moment in the Final Four that have derailed some great teams we’ve had, but it’s never happened here between both games. So it’s new for all of us.

And Lou is a pretty sensitive kid, kind of an emotional kid. And as the game went on, she became more — obviously more aware of this is what it is. And today I’m sure it will be difficult when we go to practice and tomorrow when she shows up at the arena and she’s not playing. It’s going to be difficult when this is all you think about when you’re in high school, winning a national championship in college, and now here your team is and you can’t play.

One thing I did say to her last night was while this will make you work even harder to make sure you get back so that you’ll get a chance to have your time, but right now, it’s not your time; it’s somebody else’s time. And she did it on the very first play of the game and then played the rest of the first half on it. So I asked her: Why didn’t you say anything? And she said: Because it was just bothering me a little bit. I thought there was a stone in my foot and I thought Rosemary could just take it out or tape me up, put a little pad in there. And then she started poking around and said uh-oh.

And it’s unfortunate, and it’s unfortunate that we’re playing a team that we could use another big guard.

Q. I’m sure you’ve been asked this already, but how fitting is it that Breanna’s last game is against Syracuse? A minute ago she was talking about how in high school she and her dad would go to women’s games and eat nachos together while watching. How fitting is it to go full circle for her?
COACH AURIEMMA: Like I said before, if you wrote this, it would sound like somebody made it up. And it’s real life. She is a huge Syracuse fan. Stewy is a huge Syracuse fan. She knows. And she’s come right out and said it. Like if she was a guy playing high school ball there, there’s no doubt in her mind she’d be playing at Syracuse. But it just wasn’t the right time for her to go there and Connecticut was a better place for her.

And there’s a soft spot, I think, for Syracuse, which she’ll probably admit to today and Wednesday, but not tomorrow. But it’s ironic. It’s just a great story. It’s a great story. It really is.

Q. I think I’ve asked you this question the last three years, but to keep this consistent —
COACH AURIEMMA: Do you want a different answer?

Q. Hopefully. Or the same one. Whatever you want to give. You guys are the ultimate closers in basketball. I mean, 10-for-10, people don’t do that. So just what makes you guys rise to the occasion that in the title game you just have been impossible to beat?
COACH AURIEMMA: I don’t know. Doug, I don’t know. I think at this time of the year your confidence level and your ability have to mesh. There’s teams maybe that come here with a lot more confidence than ability and it catches up to you or a lot more ability than they have confidence. So when those two things mesh, I think you have a pretty unbeatable combination. And we’ve generally put ourselves in the position where we’ve got enough talent, we’ve got enough ability to win, and our conference level is really high.

And you’ve got — 10 championships, right? Three people are directly responsible for eight of them. So when you’ve got those three in your lineup, Stewy, Dee, and Maya, at this time of the year, generally speaking, if you have the best player on the floor, good things can happen.

And generally speaking, every time we’ve come to the Final Four with one of those guys, we’ve had the best player on the floor. Doesn’t mean they won all the time. So, you know, like everybody else, streaks are meant to end. Some day.

Q. You’ve talked about the championships you’ve won and rather than comparing them to other streaks in other sports, it’s sort of its own thing. I’m just wondering how you as sort of a broad-based sports fan have put what you’re doing in historical context, number one. And number two, whether the difference in terms of being able to appreciate and enjoy it on a day like this comes from just the full body of work and the number of people whose lives you’ve touched over this period of time?
COACH AURIEMMA: I don’t know what the historical perspective is in terms of that. Big picture-wise. But I just feel like I’m pretty realistic about what the expectation level is with each team that we have and you feel like a sense of, okay, well, we’ve been given this to work with and the end result with this can be, should be a national championship.

So we try to ride that out. And then some years we look around and we go: I don’t think we have all the pieces to win a national championship. Where we need to get lucky? So we’re pretty sensible when it comes to what we think we have. We’re not fooling ourselves into thinking that we could come here without one or two great players and win. You can. I mean, nobody voted anybody on Syracuse’s team All-American, and here they are playing for the national championship.

So, I mean, you can. I think the key to our success is we’ve been able to just do that with some great players and never really thinking in terms of where does that put us in terms of the history of this game or any other game. And maybe because I’m conscious of the fact that people devalue women’s sports, you know? So looks like you’re always dealing with half the population that’s going to devalue it no matter what we do.

So you don’t really get caught up in like, wow, big — you’ve just got so many haters out there you don’t let yourself go out there. You just go, hey, the people in my locker room, whatever we’re doing it’s for us, not for anybody else.

Q. Mike Neighbors said last night it’s a little tough to prepare for Syracuse because it’s tough to simulate in practice in what they do, the way they play. Is that an issue for you guys at all?
COACH AURIEMMA: We’ll find out. I mean, they’re very disruptive in what they do. Very disruptive. And I don’t know, having been in the same league with them for a bunch of years is any advantage or not. I don’t know. Because it’s a different cast of characters. Different style of play. But they cause problems for you because — you know, they remind me a little bit of DePaul. They just create an environment in the game where if you let your emotions get away from you, it plays right into their hands.

And a big focus for us tomorrow night is to make sure that we manage it properly and take advantage of whatever they’re doing that we can exploit, but not be caught up in the disturbing effects that they have on your offense.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.

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