January 31, 1990 — UConn women’s basketball defeated Georgetown 76-54.
The game was inconsequential (good luck finding stats for it) — so much so that Geno Auriemma can’t recall anything about it. But it was one of the most important moments in the history of the program: It was the Huskies’ first game in the brand-new Gampel Pavilion.
Instead, he just remembers being in awe at the building that was light years ahead of UConn’s old home, the Hugh Greer Field House.
“What I remember specifically is that it was so bright because where we used to play, it was so dark,” he said. “It was so bright, the ceiling panels were so white, everything was so brand new that from the outside, it actually looked like a spaceship had landed in the middle of campus and just sat here.”
Clearly, he wasn’t the only one that felt that way. Auriemma may not know the details of the Huskies’ 76-54 win, yet he can still see one aspect of the game crystal-clear, even all these years later.
“Coming out here for the game, it’s not that there were a lot of people in the seats but the concourse was full of people just leaning over the railing going ‘What the hell is going on here?’ They might’ve been walking by, heard about it or seen all the lights and gone ‘What the hell is going on in this building,’ and walked in and stood all the way around the concourse, looking down on the court and watching us play,” he said. “We won, which is really cool, but I really remember vividly how bright it was and how curious the people on campus were to see what was going on.”
The team that played on that court that day went on to win the Big East regular season title, but fell to Clemson in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Gampel Pavilion. UConn star Kerry Bascom had the chance to win it with a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but her shot rimmed out. With that, Auriemma fell to 0-2 in the big dance in his career.
However, the Huskies brought back the same roster the year after in 1991. The core featured seniors Bascom and Laura Lishness along with juniors Debbie Baer, Wendy Davis and Meghan Pattyson (now Meghan Culmo). After heartbreak the previous two seasons, Auriemma knew it was now-or-never for his budding program.
“That shot (by Bascom) was devastating that it didn’t go in because it made me feel like we’re never going beyond the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament,” Auriemma said. “It actually felt like that. It felt like one opportunity to make this work and that one opportunity has gone away. I thought we had one more chance.”
Toledo nearly spoiled those plans. In the opening round of the 1991 tournament, UConn eked out an 81-80 win over the Rockets at Gampel where — unlike the previous year — Bascom converted a three-point play in the final 30 seconds to advance the Huskies to the regionals at the Palestra in Philadelphia.
UConn cruised past No. 2 NC State in a 82-71 win before exacting revenge against Clemson in the Elite Eight, 60-57. While Auriemma wouldn’t learn the significance of the accomplishment until many years later, the moment itself wasn’t lost on him.
“I don’t think — including the national championships — I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life, in my career as a coach, that I’ve ever been more emotional than I was that night,” Auriemma said. “The culmination of three years with that group.”
That one point against Toledo may be the most important point in program history. If UConn loses that game, it doesn’t go to the first Final Four and Auriemma drops to 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament. Without that victory, it’s unlikely the Huskies would’ve ever reached the heights they did in the 30 years since.
“If that [Final Four] didn’t happen, none of this would’ve happened. Zero. Not even close to happening,” Auriemma said. “Because nobody would’ve seen us play, we never would’ve been on television, never been to the Final Four, nothing. We would’ve just been a bunch of kids who played basketball and moved on with the rest of their lives.”
Instead, that point went in favor of the Huskies. UConn reached the Final Four and though it lost to Virginia, it represented a formative moment in the program’s history. The Huskies weren’t just a mid-major that made a Cinderella run to New Orleans. UConn proved itself on a regional scale with five Big East titles and had its success validated with the trip to the Final Four.
Once the Huskies broke through and forced themselves into the national conversation of women’s college basketball, Gampel Pavilion provided the facility they needed to stay there. It was the stage that UConn used to solidify itself as more than just a good team. It helped Auriemma build a great program.
“If we didn’t have this building, we were never going to be able to be more than just a run of the mill Big East team. We would be like every other Big East team, like every other team in the Northeast. We would be a pretty decent team that would play in obscurity, win some games and nobody would take serious,” Auriemma said.
“This building made it possible for us to be considered more than a regional team. If we don’t have this building, we don’t get the players that we got after Meghan and them. We don’t get those players. We don’t get Rebecca (Lobo), Pam (Webber), Jen (Rizzotti), Jamelle (Elliot), Carla (Berube), Kara (Wolters), Nykesha (Sales). Those guys don’t come here. They wouldn’t come here. So without this building, we would’ve been another team from the Big East that nobody knew about, nobody cared about and wasn’t going anywhere. By getting this building, we were able to recruit a certain kind of kid that could make us as good as any team in the country.”
Auriemma would’ve built a national championship contender with or without Gampel Pavilion. The arena just made sure he built that type of program at UConn, not elsewhere.
“If we stayed where we were, we would’ve stayed what we were and I would’ve left. I would’ve left as soon as I could’ve. I probably would’ve left right after the Final Four team,” Auriemma said. “Well, we wouldn’t have gone to the Final Four, plain and simple. We probably wouldn’t have gone to the Final Four. And CD and I would’ve been long gone by the time 1995 came around.”
Even 30 years later, Jan. 31, 1990 is nothing more than a footnote in history. Gampel Pavilion was built with an eye towards UConn’s burgeoning men’s basketball program more so than the women’s basketball team — especially considering the disparity between the two sports at the time.
The date itself isn’t important. Instead, it’s what that day represents. It was the first brick in the foundation of UConn’s dynasty. The building represented the program’s aspirations, while the players on the court were the ones that would eventually help it get there.
It’s easy to point to the 1995 squad as the one that transformed UConn forever — starting the rivalry with Tennessee, winning the program’s first national championship, establishing the Huskies as a national power — and there’s plenty of truth to that.
But none of that would’ve been possible if not for Gampel Pavilion and the 1991 Final Four team.
“As much as the ‘95 team did what they did — obviously that’s huge. In the history of the women’s basketball, it’s up there with the most impactful teams ever,” Auriemma said. “But in terms of UConn is concerned, this group of kids that’s here today, what they did the following year, that’s what made this all happen.”