For a program as decorated as UConn women’s basketball, it can be hard to keep living up to — and surpassing — the program’s astronomical expectations on a yearly basis. Last season, despite an undefeated regular season and 111-game win streak, was deemed a failure after the Huskies fell short of the national title.
“It’s really difficult now because I don’t know where to set our sights on. Because wherever we set them, we’ve already been there,” Auriemma said after capturing his 1,000 win in December. “That makes it very difficult right now and it does take a lot out of you. Just because we make it look easy doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
Through the dregs of American Conference play, where seemingly every game is a 40 or 50-point blowout, keeping their foot on the gas can be difficult to do.
To counter it, the Huskies maintain a strict game-to-game focus and once the ball is tipped, they focus on playing their game as opposed to the score. That’s how they managed to shut out Cincinnati in the second quarter and hold the Bearcats to just five first-half points in the AAC Tournament semifinals without even realizing it.
“Our goal is always to shut teams out, but that rarely happens,” junior Napheesa Collier said. “We didn’t notice it but during the game we locked in on defense and tried to do what we needed to do instead of looking at the score.”
The approach has certainly helped since UConn has never lost an American Conference game in 100 tries. In fact, they’ve barely lost at all as seniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams have experienced defeat just twice in their UConn careers.
“Most teams in America lose two games in a week and [Nurse and Williams] have lost two games in four years,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “It must not be easy to do because we’re the only ones doing it. So there must be something we’re doing that allows us to put ourselves in position to do that.”
So how do the Huskies continue to have such extended success? Auriemma highlighted two key aspects: Putting in extra work and playing selfless basketball. Many coaches will say that but few can extract it from players, and none are doing it with great players like Auriemma and his staff.
“If you just want to be average do average work. If you want to be a little bit above average you do a little more work,” he said. “If you want to get A’s in basketball then you have to do stuff other people aren’t willing to do, especially if you have the talent like we do.”
It’s easy to look at UConn’s roster, composed mostly of top-tier recruits and say their success comes easy thanks to their talent level. Talent can certainly take a team a long way but it doesn’t explain the Huskies’ unparalleled success by itself.
The coaching staff has to find players that sacrifice their own production for the overall benefit of the team, something not all players are willing to do.
“Not every kid is coming out of high school dying to go, ‘Hey, I get 25 shots a night in high school but I’m looking for a place where I can only take 15 because we have so many other good players on the team,’” Auriemma said. “Good luck selling that one.”
While it’s certainly a rare quality, the coach manages to find it in all the players he brings to Storrs. Auriemma highlighted point guard Crystal Dangerfield as a player that epitomizes the team-first mentality.
“We were running something earlier in the year got a wide open layup or wide open shot. There was a dead ball time and I said ‘Crystal, we’re going to run that the rest of the game until they figure out how to stop it,’” Auriemma said. “It didn’t involve her getting any shots and she said, ‘Got it.’ There was no pouting or walking away saying ‘When do I get mine?’ So, when you have kids like that on your team, it’s easy to coach.”
However, it can’t just be one player buying in — the system doesn’t work like that. Each player on the court needs to remove themselves from the equation.
“If you’re going to play here, no matter who we play — and I don’t care what position you play — the worst thing that could happen is you don’t want to be a good passer,” Auriemma said.
“Because the worst thing that could happen is a really good player on our team is standing wide open and you don’t pass them the ball, or you can’t get them the ball, or you throw a lousy pass to them. Because then what’s the point of having all these good players if you can’t pass?”
And it’s more than just having good players. Auriemma wants his players to be remembered beyond their physical abilities on the basketball court.
“What greater compliment can someone give a player than saying, ‘That kid’s a great teammate,’? What better compliment can you receive as a player?” he said. “Oh, ‘That kid’s a great player.’ So what? You know how many great players there are out there that don’t accomplish anything?
“When you leave a team and say ‘She’s a great teammate,’ that’s the best compliment. It means you do the things other people don’t want to do. ‘Yeah I got a good shot but I’m gonna pass this so we get a great shot. Yeah I’m a good three point shooter but there’s Lou wide open, she’s a great three point shooter.’”
That — according to Auriemma — is the key to winning games. Having talented players buy into that system is what brings success to the next level in the form of national championships, winning streaks and undefeated seasons.
“To be able to do that, that’s the hard part and that’s what put teams in contention to win games all the time,” he said. “And we have really good players, let’s never forget that. We have really good players.”
The Huskies are taking on South Florida in the AAC Championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena with tip-off slated for 5 p.m. ET.