What they said: UConn faces the media the day before the 2016 Final Four
THE MODERATOR: Joining us is UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and student-athletes Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson.
Coach, an opening statement.
COACH AURIEMMA: The worst part about the whole trip is waiting for Sunday. You know, you get here and it’s one thing after another, after another. And they make time for everything except getting ready for the game. That almost becomes an afterthought.
We try to focus on tomorrow night, and I like where our team is mentally. And I think we’re in a really good place. And I know we’re just anxious. I think tomorrow morning it will kind of really settle in and we’ll get into our game day routine. And I guess that’s the best word I can use to describe is we’re anxious.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the student-athletes.
Q. As coach was alluding to, you guys know the routine so well here. From the time you get off the bus, when you arrive to a Final Four city, to the time you play the game. The other three teams don’t. It’s all new to them. Do you think that translates at all in the game, in the playing of the game?
MORGAN TUCK: This time I think it’s a little different, where our schedule is a little changed because we usually have the second game. But I think part of it, like Coach talks about, is just not focusing on this part of it. This is not why we came here. We didn’t come to do media or a dinner or things like that. And I think all three teams, no matter how many times they’ve been here, know that we’re here to play basketball. So I think it can help where we don’t get caught up in it. But at the end of the day, I think all teams, we’re just coming for the games, not all the extra stuff.
Q. You’ve talked about making sure that your routine stays the same, you know, games in January throughout your season to make sure you’re preparing the same way. But obviously here’s an opportunity to sort of take it in for the last time. And I’m just wondering whether you guys have done anything different in terms of being able to take that extra moment how you sort of balance that with making sure your routine doesn’t change?
BREANNA STEWART: I think what Coach is talking about, it’s hard to kind of take time. We don’t have much free time in the Final Four because we’re always doing something with the media or going to a dinner or something like that. But in the back of our minds we know that either way this is our last Final Four. And we want to enjoy that. We want to enjoy it with our teammates, our coaches, families that came.
But when tomorrow happens, we’re focused solely on the game. We’re going through our same game day routine because that’s how we mentally lock.
MORIAH JEFFERSON: It’s tough knowing it’s your last time, you try to cherish the moments as much as you can. At the same time, it’s game day, game time, and when that time comes around, we’re going to be ready to play the game.
Q. Breanna, now that you’ve conclude your UConn career, looking back to your recruiting days, how close did you actually come to going to Syracuse, where did they rank? Part two, now that Syracuse is in the Final Four, as your hometown team, what’s your reaction to them being here?
BREANNA STEWART: Growing up in Syracuse, I thought about it, going there. Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t think about going to the hometown school and that stuff? But when push came to shove, UConn was the best place for me. And seeing them being here in the Final Four, you know, over the top happy for Coach Q, Brittney Sykes, Bri Butler, people I played with, played McDonald’s with, that kind of stuff. And it’s nice to see their program finally take that next step.
Q. You’ve been working at this for so long now. And you’re finally here at the Final Four with two wins away from a championship. What does it feel like to be so close to your goal?
MORGAN TUCK: I think it feels really goal, this was our goal coming in and for us to be here it was a big part of it, so we’re ready to start the tournament and start playing tomorrow and just trying to get through all the things we have to do today and just trying to enjoy it.
Q. Moriah, what of the last have you been most sentimental about so far, when you’re getting to these last things? And I want to ask both of you what have you been most sentimental about?
MORIAH JEFFERSON: Probably walking off the court with these two to get out of the Elite Eight to win the game we did. It was tough, hard-fought. To walk off the court with these guys, it was pretty fun.
MORGAN TUCK: I would agree, coming in to Connecticut with these two, I couldn’t have asked for a better class to be with. And they’ve made me such a better player, and I’ve enjoyed my time with them. So I think just knowing that we won’t really be on the same court playing with each other after this weekend.
Q. Breanna, two great shot blockers come up in this upcoming game. Are you able to learn shot blocking? Is it instinctual, and what do you do when you go up against another great shot blocker to make sure they don’t get that?
BREANNA STEWART: I think shot blocking has a lot to do with your size and your length, first of all. And then, yeah, instincts, have to be able to figure out the timing and that kind of stuff and to not use your body to create the contact with the other player. But when you’re playing against another great shot blocker, you have to kind of realize the things that I would do and try to use more shot face, that kind of stuff. And get them in foul trouble.
Q. What impresses you about Ruth’s shot blocking, and is there similarities in the way you see her going after shots and the way you play that as well?
BREANNA STEWART: I think the thing that impresses me most is she’s obviously tall and has length and that kind of stuff. But the way she uses it, she uses her body really well and doesn’t initiate contact to get a foul and that kind of stuff. And even when the ball is coming around the perimeter, she’s still doing her best to contest that.
Q. Moriah, as players, it’s easy, been here a lot. Do you think in any kind of way you kind of take it for granted, because sometimes when you get complacent I know Coach probably reminds you all the time, but do you think that being here so many times, doing it so well, you all get complacent or just take it for granted?
MORIAH JEFFERSON: Not at all. Each time we come here it’s a different team, different players and we have to work extremely hard throughout the year. It might look easy on TV but it’s not at all. We go through a lot of struggles, a lot of difficulties throughout the year. And so every time we get here it’s amazing and we don’t take it for granted at all.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. Questions for Coach.
Q. When you went to the Final Four in ’91, I would imagine in some ways your team resembled Oregon State in terms of mentality and attitude and being an upstart. Do you see that in this game in Oregon State and do you miss those days at all?
COACH AURIEMMA: I think there’s a certain number of similarities. Of course, they’ve been pretty good for the last couple of years. And that was the case with us. We had been pretty good. And we finally broke through and totally unexpected. We were in a regional where we certainly were not — I mean, they were higher, they were a 2 seed. We were, I think, a 4 or something like that. I don’t remember. But I don’t even know if there were 64 teams back then. I don’t think there were in 1991 in our tournament.
So it was unexpected for us to be here. And I think in some ways it was unexpected for a team from where we were to be in the Final Four. And there hasn’t been a team from that part of the country in the Final Four. I don’t know if ever. I don’t know if Washington ever made it in the past. This might be Washington’s first, I’m not sure. So there’s some similarities. And their team is senior dominated. Ours was junior and senior dominated. They shoot the ball well. We shot the ball well, really well back then. Our players weren’t well known throughout the country, and most of their players, you know, they have not been on the national stage.
Do I miss those days? Sometimes. I mean, sometimes I think back to how much fun it was to be in that situation. I don’t miss coming to the Final Four in 1991 and having Tennessee, Stanford and Virginia and people look at us going: What are you doing here? I don’t miss those days. And I don’t miss the days when I didn’t have Stewy, Moriah and Tuck, not at all.
Q. After all this team has endured over the last few months, with the end so close, are the players conducting themselves any different? Do you see greater urgency or anything like that?
COACH AURIEMMA: The difference starts to show when the NCAA Tournament begins. Once the NCAA Tournament starts, there’s a little bit of a difference. And you can tell, you can see it in their demeanor. You can see it in their practice. Things change a little bit.
But in terms of what they do on a daily basis and how they go about things, not much. It’s pretty much the same routine. There’s really — you can’t change much. Can’t do something one way for six months and then try to do something completely different the last two weekends. So just subtle things. But not anything real big.
Q. Moriah and Breanna made the USBWA All-American list. Morgan Tuck did not. Would you describe how essential she is all season to UConn success, but she’s next to the reigning Player of the Year, next to the reigning Nancy Lieberman Award winner? Do you think that Morgan gets lost?
COACH AURIEMMA: No, I don’t think she gets lost. I think in life, you know, you end up in places where you’re surrounded by either people who do great things and you’re a part of it or you surround with people who bring you down. Morgan’s been fortunate to be around Moriah and Stewy because they’ve raised her level. Maybe playing someplace without those two, she wouldn’t be as good a player as she is.
And the reason she doesn’t get lost is these other two, Moriah and Stewy, know that without Morgan they wouldn’t be here. They would be home. And Stewy might not be the National Player of the Year if it wasn’t for Morgan Tuck.
So it’s just a matter of what the outside people, the outside world chooses to believe in and to vote on and give awards to, which is fine. It’s fine. I mean, media votes and media — you have to spread things around. I understand that. I mean, it’s obvious. But I think if you polled the 365 coaches around the country and told them they could pick any five players in America to be on their team for one game, I wonder where Tuck would come in.
Q. When do you get sentimental when you’ve got a senior group; when do you start to feel sentimental about a group that’s almost done with what they’ve accomplished here? And the second question is the job Scott Rueck has done, two scholarship kids in open tryouts when he got to Oregon State?
COACH AURIEMMA: When do I get sentimental about my seniors? Next October 15th when practice starts. And I’ll look around and I’ll finally go: Man, those guys are really good.
It builds throughout the season. It builds until you get to this point. And you start to understand that it’s obviously going to end this weekend, Sunday or Tuesday, it’s going to end. And you’ve been through it so many times.
And actually it is different with every group. Some groups hit you harder than others. So I think Sunday night or Tuesday night I’m sure there will be feelings that I’ve never thought about that will come; that some I anticipate, some I won’t anticipate. And it will give us a time to look back a little bit.
As far as Scott’s concerned, just goes to show you, I think it’s another great example of how many great schools in this country just have the wrong leaders and that if they hired the right people they would be where Oregon State is today.
And your point about tryouts — I mean, how can a school in the Pac-12 have tryouts? It just goes to show you how bad the program was when he took it over. And he went out and he got kids that back then, four years ago, five years ago, he was recruiting I don’t think anybody else in the Pac-10 was scared and going, oh, my God, we’re in deep trouble. So he went out and got kids that he thought would fit into his style of play and fit into his community up there. And it’s a great lesson to every other school in the country and to every other coach in the country.
Q. What has Breanna Stewart meant to your program and what was that recruiting process like?
COACH AURIEMMA: I mean, obviously, she means — it’s a mutual thing. I think sometimes that gets lost in all the dialogue. If Stewy had not come to UConn, we might still be here. And after Stewy leaves, we might be back. The thing that’s important is that during the last four years it’s been mutual. She’s had an incredible effect on college basketball in general and the University of Connecticut, in particular. And the game has had an effect on her and the University of Connecticut has had an effect on her.
And that’s the way it’s supposed to be when you go to college. It’s supposed to be a mutual admiration society. It’s not supposed to be one way. And I think it’s been perfect. The recruiting process wasn’t that hard. Really. Some recruiting processes are a joke. I mean, it’s like demeaning, and I don’t get into it.
But my heart goes out to those kids that have to recruit that way with those kinds of kids, when you have to like embarrass yourself to get a kid. The stories I hear make me want to — about what some of these kids put coaches through during the recruiting process. Stewy was easy. It was easy. I mean, no frills, no drama, no — Coach, I just want to play basketball. I just want to win a national championship. I want to be the best player in the country, period. I said, Good. So sign on the dotted line, let’s do it. It wasn’t that hard. It wasn’t hard.
But I remember when she came to our Duke game at school, at home, we were playing Duke. And she had said that it had come down to us and Duke. And she had come to the Duke game.
And I remember asking her like: So like whoever wins tonight, that’s where you’re going to go to school? And really shy kid. And she still is to a certain extent. So she sat — she was sitting behind our bench in the recruiting seats. And we got a big lead on them in the first half. And I remember turning around and saying to her: You probably should go there, they could use you right now (laughter). And she just laughed and smiled. And game was over and she’s waiting for me outside the locker room, and one of the coaches said, Coach, Stewy wants to talk to you. She said: I want to come to Connecticut. I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was cool.
Q. You have two of the top 15 shot blockers in the history of the sport going against each other tomorrow with Ruth and Breanna. How are they different and how do they impact a team as far as defensively, similarly or differently?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, anytime a shot doesn’t get to the rim, that’s a good play for the defense. And I’ve been fortunate to coach some pretty good shot blockers from Kara and Rebecca and Tina and now Stewy, obviously. When you know that you can make mistakes and they’re not going to cost you, it’s a real confidence builder defensively that you can really go out and attack people because you know if you make a mistake to somebody that there’s somebody back there to clean it up for you.
As Stewy said, the secret is to make sure you don’t get hurt by it by getting yourself into foul trouble. Both of those guys are really good at not fouling. They’re both really good at not fouling. The interesting thing tomorrow would be how they attack Stewy and how we attack Ruth. I’m sure we’ll both have different ideas of how to do it but we’ll see that tomorrow.
Q. Geno, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the three girls up there, rightfully so. But you’ve got a couple of walk-ons in your program and I’m curious what they brought. And, also, you brought them in when you guys were hurting for depth a couple of years ago when Morgan got hurt, I believe. Was it weird to you that UConn, this powerhouse, had to have walk-ons to help practice?
COACH AURIEMMA: I don’t know where you heard that, but that’s not why we did it. We never take kids for depth. If I could just have five kids on my team the entire year, I would have five. What we do at Connecticut is when we start preseason stuff in September, some kids just wander over to the gym. And they’ll say to one of our players or they’ll say to one of our coaches: I want to try out for the team. So we tell them, well, here’s what we do every day. And we leave it at that. And then those kids, T especially, Puly came up later, showed up every day, every day went to weight room. Every day went on the track, every day did all the conditioning stuff that all the other players did. And by the time October 15th rolls around, the kids will either tell you: Yes or no.
And that’s exactly how it happened with T. When we got so much practice players at the school, we don’t — so what do they bring from a basketball standpoint? Nothing that you could say wow, but what they bring when we’re at practice or during the game or whatever is they bring a sense of perspective to everything that initially they did it for nothing other than they love to be a part of the team. Then we gave them a scholarship.
But it brings perspective to the group, because it allows me to tell one of my players that’s on scholarship that’s not playing hard or not playing well that maybe I’m giving a scholarship to the wrong person. It’s a great example. T gets up at 4:00 every morning. She’s got stuff to do. Puly has to miss some road trips because she’s trying to get into medical school. So I have no time for any of our players that don’t go to class. It’s a great example that they set.
Q. Clearly this group of seniors has meant a lot to you, and you haven’t shied away from expressing that sort of as you’ve gone forward in this tournament. I’m wondering when you get near the end with a group, whether you have a specific set of ways that you market or specific ways that you think about it, being able to sort of take that perspective back, number one. But number two, whether you’ve felt freer to express how much you admire, how much you care about this group of seniors, even a little bit earlier on, maybe because of the way they prepare and the track record that they brought to this tournament?
COACH AURIEMMA: You hate to say that it’s routine, but this is a routine that college coaches go through. I don’t know what other coaches routine is, but my routine is when I’m recruiting somebody and I really, really like them, like I really like them. And I can’t wait to get them, come October, their freshman year. From October their freshman year to their senior year, I got no time for that. Because all I see is, oh, my God, I’ve got so much work to do to help these guys get better. They’re nowhere near as good as I thought they were. They just don’t understand this. They don’t understand that. I can’t believe — and you guys are All-Americans in high school, what the — and it’s just every year, every year, every year. Because you feel like the sense of responsibility.
Then when they get to be seniors, you don’t have to say a word. They got it. And that’s when you start to really have a relationship with them that’s really, really meaningful. Because now they know what you’re talking about. Because for three years, two and a half or so, they’re like: Huh? And you have to say the same thing every day and you have to explain the same thing every day, and they go through peaks and valleys and emotions every day.
So it’s a rocky road. It’s like raising teenagers. It’s a rocky road. But then once they get it, man, it’s like the greatest thing ever. When you’ve got three seniors or one senior, or one year I had four seniors that are unbelievable kids and unbelievable players, it’s like stealing money when you’re coaching. I’m not going to tell them — my AD is not here. It’s like stealing money. When you have seniors like that, they can’t pay you enough money to do this job.
Q. As a coach how do you feel about returning to the Final Four again?
COACH AURIEMMA: Is this your first time here?
Q. Yes, sir.
COACH AURIEMMA: How do you like it?
Q. It’s fun.
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah, what’s fun about it?
Q. Everything so far.
COACH AURIEMMA: Everything.
Q. Yes, sir.
COACH AURIEMMA: What have you done?
Q. We’ve watched you speak about the players. Yes, sir.
COACH AURIEMMA: Yes?
Q. Yes, sir.
COACH AURIEMMA: Have I said anything interesting so far?
You’re taking a long time to answer. It’s not a good sign. If you want me to answer your question, you better say yes.
Q. Yes, sir.
COACH AURIEMMA: The trick in coming here is to make it feel like it’s the first time all the time. And sometimes that’s hard to do because everybody just expects you to treat it like it’s the same old thing.
And I think you have to work hard at it. You have to work hard at making sure that it’s like the first time. And the emotions have to be the same. The excitement has to be the same. Even though I understand it’s hard to do that. My emotions are a little bit different today than they were in 1995 when we went to Minneapolis, when I thought I really think we’re going to win the national championship. And that was the first time I ever thought like that, that we’re going to win it. Obviously that’s different. But for the most part you’re just like, you’re just like Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, this is their first Final Four. It’s not old hat and routine. They’re loving every minute of it, as they should and we’re trying to get our whole team to remember that.