Commentary

Recruits, Auriemma the keys to UConn's rise

Updated: March 1, 2009, 1:35 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Editor's note: While covering the UConn women's perfect run in 2001-02, ESPN.com revisited each of the previous undefeated seasons in women's college basketball history as well as the Huskies' rise to prominence.

On Jan. 15, 1995, the day before the No. 2-ranked University of Connecticut women's basketball team faced No. 1-ranked Tennessee on national television, coach Geno Auriemma pulled together his team at the center of the Gampel Pavilion court.

Geno Auriemma
Geno Auriemma has fewer NCAA titles than Pat Summitt, but his Huskies are 11-6 all-time vs. the Tennessee Lady Vols.
"How many of you are scared to death to play this game?" he asked. "Before you raise your hands, let me tell you I'm scared (silly). You better be afraid, because if you don't run as hard as you can every single second, you'll lose. Or make the perfect pass at the perfect time

"Being afraid is not all that bad, as long as you're afraid of the right things. Just don't be afraid to lose."

As it turned out, the Huskies weren't. They beat Tennessee 77-66 in a Martin Luther King Day matinee and became the nation's No. 1 team. The morning after, it was Auriemma who was afraid -- afraid to get out of bed.

"He didn't want to leave the room," remembered his wife, Kathy. "It's kind of like when you run a really big race. If you run well, you think, 'If I did it yesterday, now I have to do it again today.'

"When he goes to that office he knows what he's supposed to do, and it overwhelms him sometimes. He's got to meet that demand."

At the end of the 1994-95 season, however, supply ran well ahead of demand. Auriemma's team won its first national championship and finished with an unprecedented 35-0 record. That final victory came, appropriately, over Tennessee, the model program in women's basketball.

When, precisely, did that breakthrough moment come? Was it that classic Auriemma pep talk, or that torch-passing win over the Lady Vols during the regular season? Or was it that championship win over Tennessee? Or a subtler, under-the-radar moment that came before all the pyrotechnics?

"Man," said Rebecca Lobo, the leader of that 1994-95 team, "you're looking for the one moment when it all caught fire? That's a tough one. I'm not sure I really want to go there."

There is no indisputably correct answer, of course. One moment leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next in the Connecticut continuum. A few possibilities, arranged in chronological order:

  • The 1984-85 Huskies go 9-18 under Jean Balthaser, whose five-year career record is 52-88 (.371). It is the fourth consecutive nine-win season and it moves Connecticut to fire Balthaser and hire a young Virginia assistant named Geno Auriemma.

  • After producing a 12-15 record in 1985-86 -- his only losing season -- Auriemma guides Connecticut to a 14-13 record the following year. That same year, he convinces a star New Hampshire high school player, Kerry Bascom, to come to Storrs. Bascom will finish her career with 2,177 points, a record that will stand until an injured Nykesha Sales breaks it in controversial fashion.

  • UConn's continued improvement and Bascom's increasing presence translates into a 17-11 record and a terrific recruiting class for 1988-89 that includes Meghan Pattyson, Debra Baer and Wendy Davis.

  • Bascom, Pattyson, Baer and Davis are four of the five starters in UConn's first NCAA Final Four appearance, in New Orleans. Connecticut loses to Auriemma's old team, Virginia, 61-55.

  • Rebecca Lobo of Southwick, Mass., Auriemma's highest-ranked national recruit to date, joins UConn for the 1991-92 season. Jamelle Elliott joins the team a year later along with Jennifer Rizzotti, a Connecticut high school star. Kara Wolters, a 6-foot-6 center from Massachusetts, arrives in 1993. Sales, like Lobo another heavily recruited player, joins UConn as a freshman in 1994.

  • In its first meeting ever with Tennessee, UConn defeats the Lady Vols, 77-66. Lobo produces 13 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots. Rizzotti plays 39 minutes and has 17 points, five steals and four assists.

  • Trailing Virginia at halftime in the 1995 regional finals, UConn recovers to win 67-63 and advance to the school's second Final Four.

  • Connecticut puts the wraps on a perfect season, defeating Tennessee 70-64 in the NCAA championship game. Lobo, the national player of the year, leads all players with 17 points and adds eight rebounds.

    Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

    Greg Garber

    Writer, Reporter
    Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.