These Huskies have a lot in common with the 2001-02 champs
Geno Auriemma pantomimed the defensive mistakes months after it all happened.
This is not uncommon behavior for coaches -- at least, not for successful ones. Embedded in their minds are those moments where one slight move in the wrong direction -- or in the right direction, but a split-second too late -- add up to a lost game.
Or, as was the case with Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies in 2008, a lost chance at a national championship.
Not long after UConn had fallen 82-73 to Stanford in the national semifinals, Auriemma sat slumping in a chair, waiting to go into the interview room. He rubbed his hands across his face as if he were starting to feel a bad headache coming.
Those costly little moments were fresh then, obviously. But they aren't stale even now, as he prepares to lead his No. 1-ranked team on the path to what he hopes is a sixth national championship.
"People don't always understand " he starts to say in explaining how three shots that Stanford hit -- and the Huskies did not defend the way Auriemma wishes they would have -- were so pivotal in that game.
He's not blaming his players, mind you. He says his team was in a zone defense, and it was working. Stanford's lead had been cut to one with just more than 13 minutes left. Then, Auriemma knew it was time to get out of the zone. But he didn't communicate it quickly enough.
"I didn't get the message across; I was too slow," he said, acting it out and reliving it as he talked. Candice Wiggins nailed two Stanford 3-pointers. Then the Huskies, scrambling, got burned by another Stanford swish, this one from Kayla Pedersen. There was still a lot of the game left, and Auriemma is used to believing his players will prevail. But this time, after that sequence, he felt it in his gut: The window had closed on the Huskies.
"If they miss those shots, I believe we would have come back and won," he said. "But they deserved to win, because they made those shots."
Why reflect so much? Because that night last April in Tampa might have a correlation to a night next April in St. Louis. And there would be some historical symmetry in that, wouldn't there?
In 2001, despite having lost two key players (Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova), UConn made the Final Four in St. Louis. But then freshman Diana Taurasi had the only "bad" important game of her college career, going 1-for-15 from the field in the Huskies' semifinal loss to eventual champion Notre Dame.
The next season, with a team that was an overwhelming favorite to win the NCAA title, Auriemma did just that. That "perfect" group went 39-0; it's the team I think is the best in NCAA history.
Last season, with another transcendent rookie like Taurasi in Maya Moore, the Huskies again lost two key players to injuries but still made the Final Four. There was a sense that UConn was on an unstoppable roll. So when guard Renee Montgomery spoke cautiously about how the Huskies really weren't as good as they had been before the losses of Kalana Greene and Mel Thomas well, she sounded a bit over-worried. Turns out, of course, she knew what she was talking about. The absence of those two players meant the Huskies did not play Stanford in the Final Four the same way they had in a 66-54 win over the Cardinal in November.
"I think I'm still getting over it," Montgomery said recently of the loss to Stanford. "It's my lasting impression of last year's season."
Said Auriemma: "You can't play Stanford the way we played them. We played them half-court. Tennessee played the next night, and they didn't let them play half-court. So we would have loved to play them the way we played in November: Pick them up full-court and make them have to beat us that way.
"I think our players came out of the Final Four thinking, 'There's a couple of things we have to do a little better. We have to be better at the half-court sets, offensively and defensively."
None of this is to suggest that UConn needs to over-think about last season as fuel for 2009. (The rookies on this UConn team didn't even experience last season, so they couldn't do that anyway.)
Still, for the key returning players -- Montgomery, Greene, Moore, Tina Charles, Kaili McLaren and Lorin Dixon -- knowing how close they were before falling short at the finish line is a good thing to have stored away in the memory bank.
Auriemma sees some parallels between the 2001-02 team and the group he has for 2008-09. But it would be wrong to suggest this team -- while picked by many to win the national championship -- feels like a prohibitive favorite the same way the 2002 team did.
But this team faces different challenges. For instance, everyone's wondering how much the Huskies will be affected by not having the freshman who was expected to be one of the sport's best players: Elena Delle Donne.
Both Montgomery and Moore say, "Not that much." By that they don't mean they wouldn't have liked to have her; they certainly would. But Delle Donne left in June -- deciding to opt out of her scholarship to UConn, citing burnout with basketball, and eventually choosing instead to stay closer to home and play volleyball at Delaware.
The summer had really just begun when she departed. The Huskies weren't around Delle Donne enough to have gotten used to her or to truly miss her now on the court.
"It wasn't hard for me at all," Montgomery says frankly, but not unkindly. "She was only here for a very short amount of time. She never actually was on the team. We still have a lot of great players."
Auriemma said the Delle Donne situation was unlike anything he'd experienced before.
"You're used to kids not wanting us, saying, 'I don't want to come to Connecticut, I want to go somewhere else,' " he said. "Or you get a kid who says, 'I'm not getting enough playing time, so I'm going to transfer.'
"Very rarely -- well, how about never -- do you have something like this happen. So you're not quite sure what to say about it. People back home -- fans or newspaper people -- everybody asks me to give them the inside dope, the scoop on what happened. And I tell them the same thing: 'You've read it all, you've heard it all. It's all been said.' "
The three rookies that are with UConn -- Caroline Doty, Tiffany Hayes and Heather Buck -- are all expected to be important factors. Montgomery sees Doty as player who'll knock down big shots from the perimeter, Hayes as the slasher, and Buck as the one who'll do the so-called "dirty work."
"If the three freshmen can contribute like I think they're going to, I think we have a chance to go one game further than we did last year," Auriemma said. "I think we'll be able to play really fast, especially with Lorin Dixon. She's really improved a lot, and that's another key."
"Somebody like Tina Charles has -- in her mind -- screwed it up two years in a row and now it's time to get it right. Maya Moore is a year older. Renee Montgomery, as a returning All-American, now feels like, 'I'm one of the best players in the country and I can play that way.' Kalana Greene looks great."
Note that above, Auriemma is not saying he thinks Charles "screwed it up." But he knows she is frustrated by how she ended the past two seasons. She had nine points and six rebounds against Stanford, going 4 of 5 from the field. That's not a bad game, by any means. But did UConn need more from her that night? Yes. And the year before in an Elite Eight loss to LSU, she had just one point and three rebounds.
Charles can handle knowing the truth. So Auriemma doesn't pull punches where they don't need to be pulled.
"I think the coaching staff does a good job of keeping us humble," Montgomery said. "We can play really well, and they'll still have a half-hour of film of things we did wrong."
Things like not-quite-good-enough defense on those three possessions against Stanford at the Final Four last season. The Huskies don't have to dwell on that, but they can't forget, either.
"I like our chances. I like them a lot," Auriemma said. "I don't know that we're going to go 39-0 or 38-1 or 36-2 or whatever. But that doesn't matter. You just have to get to the NCAA tournament -- and go from there."
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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