Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma doesn't feel the need to make a big deal about the number nine and what it potentially means for his Huskies. The eight championship banners hanging above Gampel Pavilion say it all.
Since 1991, when the Huskies made their first NCAA Tournament Final Four, no incoming class has graduated without making it to the final weekend in at least one season. Since 2008, every incoming class has participated in every Final Four, and three times the Huskies have been the last team standing. With all the winning going on in Storrs, Conn. — the Huskies also claim 37 Big East Conference titles (19 regular season, 18 conference tournaments) and a .928 overall winning percentage since the start of the 1994-95 season (.843 in the NCAAs, 91-17) — it might seem like those titles would start to blur together.
Not so. For Auriemma, winning titles is anything but routine. Each title is precious, and every championship team unique.
He recently walked down memory lane – more like a Victory Lane for this coach – with ESPN Events, offering his thoughts on what impressed him about each of his record-tying eight national champions.
Final Four: Beat Stanford, 87-60
Final: Beat Tennessee, 70-64
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Rebecca Lobo
Auriemma: “Intelligence and maturity. That was the most intelligent and mature team I had had up to that point. That team was a very bright group of individuals; more so than you would find on most teams.”
Final Four: Beat Penn State, 89-67
Final: Beat Tennessee, 71-52
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Shea Ralph
Auriemma: “That was the most gifted and deepest team we had up until that point. We had a great combination of talent and experience.”
Final Four: Beat Tennessee, 79-56
Final: Beat Oklahoma, 82-70
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Swin Cash
Auriemma: “That was probably the most complete team. It had no weaknesses whatsoever. In terms of talent and experience, that team was second to none. That team started three Olympians, which is pretty incredible to think about.”
Final Four: Beat Texas, 71-69
Final: Beat Tennessee, 73-68
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Diana Taurasi
Auriemma: (See 2004)
Final Four: Beat Minnesota, 67-58
Final: Beat Tennessee, 70-61
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Diana Taurasi
Auriemma: “That was improbable – 2003 and 2004 kind of run together in that they were built on Diana Taurasi. That was like Larry Bird singlehandedly carrying Indiana State to the Final Four. But ‘D’ went a step further and won the national championship two years in a row.”
Final Four: Beat Stanford, 83-64
Final: Beat Louisville, 76-54
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Tina Charles
Auriemma: “2009 was one of those things where we caught lightning in a bottle that year. Maya Moore was a sophomore. Tina Charles was a junior. We were fortunate that Kalana Greene was back from an injury and Renee [Montgomery] was a senior. Once we ended up getting great contributions from the young guys, everything just kind of came together. We didn’t really know what we had when we started the season but, as the season went on, it turned out that we had something special.”
Final Four: Beat Baylor, 70-50
Final: Beat Stanford, 53-47
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Maya Moore
Auriemma: “To me, 2010 is just an extension of 2009. Those two seasons just ran together as one long season. It was like one long 78-0 NBA season, where we just expected to win every game!”
Final Four: Beat Notre Dame, 83-65
Final: Beat Louisville, 93-60
Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Breanna Stewart
Auriemma: “2013 came a little earlier than we thought so I would say it was improbable. We weren’t sure that we were ready but we found ourselves during the month of March. It was like a great horse race for us that year because for three-quarters of the race we were trying to find our stride. Then on March 1 we found it and we did a Secretariat at the Final Four and won going away.”
As the Huskies look for their historic ninth national championship in 2014 and the completion of a repeat for a third time, Auriemma has seen his team overcome some tough breaks. Star forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis missed eight games after suffering a nerve contusion in her right elbow early in the second half on Nov. 11, and her replacement, sophomore Morgan Tuck, has missed 11 games while dealing with right knee issues.
UConn has just rolled on — in Mosqueda-Lewis’ return, in the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 17 at Duke, she nailed a career-best and team-season-high seven three-pointers – jumping out to the ninth 19-0 start in the Auriemma era. Wednesday night’s decisive 83-49 victory over American Conference rival Memphis (10-8, 3-3) earned Auriemma his eighth 20-0 start. Six times the Huskies have won national championships when starting 19-0. The other times they lost in the Elite Eight (to eventual champion Tennessee) and the Final Four.
UConn has continued to dominate a schedule loaded with challenges and potential pitfalls. Most of the obstacles have come while away from home, as Connecticut took care of business at then-No. 2 Duke at Cameron Indoor, at then-No. 8/7 Maryland, at then-No. 13/15 Penn State, and at then-No. 7/7 Baylor, and at No. 21/RV Rutgers. They still face two matchups with last season’s finalist, Louisville, which is presently ranked in the top 10.
At the end of the day, Auriemma likes his team’s chances of getting title No. 9, thanks, in part, to the experience the Huskies gained in winning No. 8.
“I think winning the national championship last year gave this group a lot of confidence,” he said. “Although there is no guarantee we will win this year just because we won last year, there is a feeling among them that, ‘We’ve done it, so we can do it again.’ ”