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‘We were in UC Davis’ position at one time,’ says UConn coach

BruceGallaudetW

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From page B1 | December 06, 2013 | Leave Comment

Autumn leaves turn dazzling colors in the village of Storrs.

When late winter rolls around, this Connecticut region can be coated with snow … turned into a real-world Currier-and-Ives lithograph.

Springtime is mild, exploding with wildlife.

Summer transforms the area’s many ponds and lakes into a leisure-time paradise.

But it seems like one thing never changes here: UConn women’s basketball will win 30-plus games.

The defending national champions — and current No. 1 team in the country — own eight NCAA titles, have 19 conference titles, sport a 848-133 record under coach Geno Auriemma, are 91-17 in postseason, have beaten …

Fine, you get the idea.

Now in his 29th season at the helm, Auriemma and his Huskies have become the standard by which all other women’s hoops programs are judged.

But it wasn’t always an absolute power.

In the 10 years before Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey arrived in 1985, UConn had averaged 16 losses a year and had but one winning season.

Auriemma’s first campaign at UConn saw his team go 12-15.

It wasn’t until his fourth season that the Huskies made the NCAA tournament and another six years passed before they made it to the Final Four.

That first championship came in 1995 — a 70-64 victory over Tennessee. Rebecca Lobo led the way and Connecticut went 35-0.

There have been three other unbeaten seasons — and observers think this 10-0 group might be the school’s best.

Knowing that our UC Davis women, the Thursday recipients of a 97-37 UConn gift card, aspire to this next-level basketball, I explored Auriemma’s, Dailey’s and Aggie head coach Jennifer Gross’ notes.

Interesting …

“We were in UC Davis’ position at one time,” said Dailey, whose niece attended UCD. “Geno and I don’t forget that part of building a program is playing schools outside your league and outside your comfort level.”

(The Aggies have No. 1 UConn and No. 6 Stanford under their belts this fall.)

“You learn about yourself by doing that,” believes Dailey, who was instrumental in setting up the home-and-away series with Gross. “And Geno (who does the scheduling) is really open to helping (other) programs.”

(Remember, the Huskies are headed to The Pavilion next November.)

So how did it all begin at UConn?

“The (building blocks) are the same whether it’s basketball or not,” Auriemma told me after Wednesday’s practice. “For us, it was trying to recruit the kind of players that not only would help us win — get better than when we took the job — but recruit the kind of players that would attract other good players.”

Auriemma never sacrificed “winning right away … we didn’t take short cuts or take kids that we thought were only going to help us just now (not) long term.”

Gross, in her third year at the helm of the Aggie program, believes UCD is on the right track.

“It’s a process. The goal is to get better and better. Not only each year, but every single day,” says the Aggie Hall of Famer who assisted Sandy Simpson during the school’s transition to Division I. “Building a system, establishing a culture, bring in players who are competitors. We’re all doing this together. We build a team first: a core, a foundation.”

Gross says her women are “taking huge steps forward.” A wicked schedule saw UCD go to Stanford and lose 66-48. The margin was closer than at anytime in the two schools’ previous eight games during Tara VanDerveer’s reign.

The five teams UCD has lost to this season are a combined 30-9.

“Some people will look at that 18-point loss to Stanford and go ‘Oh, man,’ ” Gross says. “But it’s really a measure of how far we’ve come in just one year … putting ourselves in a place to be competitive with the Stanfords.”

UCD lost to the Cardinal, 87-38, last year.

Gross and Auriemma agree that any rise in stature comes with young women of character and ability. Both want complete student-athletes. Every player who spent four years in the Connecticut program under Auriemma has graduated. Gross has a handful of Aggies taking final exams on this road trip. Like Simpson before her, she knows the importance of education.

So where and when do things turn the corner in a program?

“When we started to get great kids who were also great players, the administrators started to support us more and more because we kept winning and winning,” Auriemma explained.

“The fans embraced the program. Whenever a game was televised, fans could see something different was going on here than in other places in America.”

Gross now and Auriemma early on seem matched up in their thinking.

“Whether it’s Davis, or anyplace else, I think it all starts with a recruiting philosophy,” says the UConn coach. “Then, over the years, players get better and better. Then you knock off a couple of big names that you’re not supposed to beat … next thing you know, you get a little momentum, separate yourself from the other schools you’re competing against and go from there.”

“Geno and Tara are so great at understanding what’s good for women’s basketball in general,” Gross points out, adding that folks should come see what’s happening at The Pavilion this season.

“When people come out, maybe for the first time, they’ll go ‘Wow, this is pretty darn exciting.’ ”

Gross says it takes “great people” in the program to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the country.

She believes all the pieces are coming together to head into that next level.

— Bruce Gallaudet is a staff writer for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at bgallaudet@davisenterprise.net

Bruce Gallaudet

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