On Monday, UConn women’s basketball came within six points of being bounced out of the NCAA Tournament when the 7-seed UCF Knights took the Huskies down to the wire in the second round. While UConn pulled out a 52-47 victory, it didn’t exactly look like a national title contender. The Huskies shot just 29.2 percent, went 2-12 on layups and hit just six of their 20 uncontested shots.
Afterwards, Geno Auriemma described the game as “a new experience,” “draining” and “excruciating.” But he also doesn’t believe that performance is a true reflection of his team.
“If you’re not careful, you start to think that that’s who you are. ‘Oh, my God, is that who we are five days before we’re playing in the regionals?’ No, that game is the only game of the year that will ever be played like that,” he said.
Instead, Auriemma will take the positives — UConn figured out how to win an NCAA Tournament game despite only making 14 baskets, got the stops when it needed them and closed it out on the free throw line — and throw out the rest.
That includes how he utilized the roster. Neither Caroline Ducharme nor Nika Mühl played in the second half, which created questions about their spots in the rotation. But Auriemma reiterated that their lack of playing time was more a factor of the game than the players themselves.
“Monday night was not a reflection on whether Caroline or Nika aren’t going to be able to have a big role tomorrow — and going forward, if we’re fortunate,” he said. “But Caroline will have a big role tomorrow, and she’s got to do what she does.”
It took some time for the coach to come around to this mentality, though. In the immediate aftermath of the victory, his assistants needed to talk him off the ledge.
“When I was bitching and moaning for the next three days about how terrible we are and we’re never going to win another game for the rest of history of UConn women’s basketball because of the way we played, [the assistants] were quick to remind me that, you know, two months ago we would have lost that game easily. Easily we would have lost that game. Probably by double digits,” Auriemma said.
So as ugly as UConn’s victory over UCF might have been, every game of the NCAA Tournament should be taken on its own. The Huskies’ matchup with Indiana on Saturday will be different and if they advance to the Elite Eight, that game will be unique in its own way.
If anything, UConn’s performance on Monday showed how much progress its made over the last few months.
“We’ve come a long way. We’ve improved in every area because of what we had to endure,” Auriemma said. “I think the kind of season that we had probably prepared us for Monday night’s game, and it actually had something to do with us winning that game.”
Juhász plenty familiar with Indiana
While UConn and Indiana have never met on the hardwood, Dorka Juhász faced the Hoosiers four times while at Ohio State. In those matchups, Juhász averaged a double-double with 13 points and 10.5 rebounds in four victories.
In the buildup to Saturday, she’s been a valuable resource for the Huskies.
“I’ve done this the past three years. I played them a lot of times. I know a lot about them,” Juhász said. “When they started doing the scouting, they were like, ‘Hey, Dorka, can you help me with this?’ Of course, I would love to tell you about it.”
Juhász even has a friend on the Indiana roster — 6-foot-3 forward Aleksa Gulbe from Latvia. The two always played against each other on their respective youth national teams and then continued the rivalry on the other side of the Atlantic when Juhász went to Ohio State and Gulbe went to Indiana.
They thought they’d finally escaped each other when Juhász transferred to UConn, but that only lasted until Selection Sunday.
“After the first round, [Juhász] texted me and she was like, I thought I was going to get away from you guys,’” Gulbe relayed.
The Indiana-UConn connection
Just Saturday’s game will be the first game between UConn and Indiana doesn’t mean there isn’t familiarity with the coaching staff. Hoosier head coach Teri Moren mentioned that she enjoys watching the Huskies because they played “pretty basketball,” as she called it. She’s also built a relationship with both Auriemma and Chris Dailey.
“My relationship probably goes a little bit deeper with CD than Geno, but nonetheless there’s a tremendous amount of respect,” Moren explained.”
“Many, many years ago when I started my coaching career at Butler, I worked for a lady by the name of June Olkowski who just happened to play basketball at Rutgers with Chris Dailey. So I’ve known CD for a long time,” she said.
It wasn’t until only recently than Moren finally met Auriemma. The two were both in Colorado Springs for a USA Basketball event when they ran into each other and spent some time talking.
“He was just nice enough to sit and just kind of chop it up, and I got to ask him some questions just about culture, building a program. He was so gracious, and just nuggets that he would share with me in terms of what the build is like and not selling your soul and sticking to your disciplines and building your program based on the things that are important to you.
“I just remember thinking that, one, he didn’t have to do that, and, two, it was really a cool moment for me because we were just in the early build of this program at Indiana.”