Cherish The Moment, Connecticut: Something's Happening Here

Shabazz Napier, Breanna Stewart

Shabazz Napier, Breanna Stewart and their respective teams are bringing a double dose of excitement to Connecticut. (Cloe Poisson, Richard Messina/ Hartford Courant / April 1, 2014)

LINCOLN, Neb. — Sometimes it comes from the mouth of an outsider. Sometimes it comes from the mouth of an insider.

And sometimes, well, sometimes the message from within is so good that it can even overcome our flinty New England skepticism.

Yes, honesty comes in many forms.

"You don't know how hard it is to be the favorite all the time and have everybody come at you," coach Gary Blair said after his Texas A&M women's basketball team was eliminated Monday night in the Elite Eight by UConn. "Every game you go on the road, it's the best crowd of the season for that team. UConn has to face it day-in and day-out, the expectations. Give the guy credit."

"Hell, there aren't a whole lot of people who want to go to Storrs, Connecticut. OK? I'm sorry. Give him credit for what he's doing, recruiting to get them to go up there. We always talk about Pat Summitt being what John Wooden was to the game. Geno [Auriemma] is what Mike Krzyzewski is to the game right now. He is getting it done at the highest level. He is getting it done at the Olympics. He is getting it done everywhere."

Blair, 68, is a straight-talking Texan, born in Dallas, an All-City baseball player who was raised on all sports. The other day he wondered if UConn eventually might face the same fate as former women's basketball power Louisiana Tech, which found it harder and harder to attract the top talent to Ruston as super conferences grew stronger and richer.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how good [UConn's] basketball teams or other teams are," Blair said. "Football pays the bills, and until they improve their football, they probably won't be invited to play in the right conference."

Straight talk from one man, albeit an outsider. While folks in Connecticut are understandably giddy about UConn's fourth joint trip to the Final Four and a combined 17 Final Four appearances since 1999 (five men, 12 women), it is an honesty that deserves constant scrutiny. It also would be intellectually dishonest, not to mention spiritually depriving, if we didn't sit back this week, take a deep breath and look with some awe at what has been built at UConn.

That momentum carries to the present. Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson will complete their UConn careers with four Final Four appearances. That's right: Four-for-Final Four. Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander could be the first UConn men to win two national titles.

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, most outstanding player at the Lincoln Regional, talked about the unrelenting expectations at UConn. She and Dolson watch the men practice and they say they see the same from Kevin Ollie. The women watched the men's Elite Eight victory over Michigan State in their Lincoln hotel. Of course they did.

"I don't think a lot of people expected them to get as far as they did this year, and I think that's why we're so proud of them," Dolson said. "When they won and made it to the Final Four, we ran out into the hallway screaming. We texted each other. They texted us after our game. It's camaraderie between the two teams. It's pretty special, [something] that not a lot of schools have."

That level of unrelenting expectation can sometimes demand soul-bearing truth. With injuries to both elbows and mononucleosis behind her, the NCAA Tournament is a clean slate for Mosqueda-Lewis. Asked what she appreciates most about playing for Auriemma, Mosqueda-Lewis said, "The thing I cherish now as a junior, after going through this year, is his honesty. How honest he is with all of us about what he believes we can do and what we can do more of. He's never going to sugarcoat anything."

That honesty can sear.

"K has had a very difficult year," Auriemma said. "For players that have never been seriously hurt, when you get hurt, you're not quite sure how to handle it. K is right. I am honest with these guys. I told her to stop feeling sorry for herself. Nobody is going to feel sorry for her. There are kids who have torn ACLs, who lose the whole season. She's fortunate she's still playing. I think she was down in the dumps the whole time. That's not going to help you get any better."

Auriemma pointed to a "serious talk" before the start of the NCAA Tournament.

"She got a lot off her chest," Auriemma said. "We put a lot of things out there, she and I. These three weekends can make you forget all trials and tribulations you went through the previous four months. That's why I am ecstatic for her that she was MVP of this tournament."

It's not easy, Auriemma insisted. He brought up some cold shooting and Breanna Stewart's struggles the past few games. He saw the disappointment on Stewart's face on the bench. The games against BYU and Texas A&M didn't turn out as easy as expected.

"I'm so glad it happened in one sense," Auriemma said. "There is this mentality out there that you guys are so good nothing bad can ever happen. … To think we're invincible and nothing bad can ever happen to us is just crazy talk. This is really hard."

Back on First Night, a November night when Dolson and Amida Brimah displayed their best dance moves, Ollie and Auriemma stood together inside Gampel Pavilion. Auriemma decided that he had enough of the angst over the Big East's demise, the ACC, Big Ten and American …

"We're in a league of our own!" Auriemma told the crowd.

Auriemma remembered those words at Pinnacle Bank Arena, in Big Ten country, late Monday night.

"There are a lot of teams in a lot of great leagues that have never been to a Final Four," Auriemma said. "Being in a great league does nothing for them. We do what we do, it's who we are and not where we're located."

Moments later, considering that the UConn men and women have combined for 17 Final Fours since 1999 (Duke is second at eight and everybody else is behind Duke), Auriemma paused.

"Those are staggering numbers," Auriemma said. "Imagine how many iconic basketball schools are out there that haven't been able to do that. They have all the things that people think you need to have to be great … the right conference, the right football program, the right facilities. … All these things people say are important."

"What we had in Connecticut was a hell of a men's coach [Jim Calhoun] who did a hell of a job with a group of guys through the years, some pros, some not. And then we have a young coach [Ollie] who the jury was out on, how do you replace a legendary coach with a guy who has never coached? Nothing short of remarkable. The only people who probably don't celebrate this enough are the people in Connecticut. We, at times, take this stuff for granted that we're UConn and we're supposed to be there. I like that, don't get me wrong. But every once in a while, we should sit back and look at what we've done. You think about where we started, what we have to work with relative to other people. It's absolutely remarkable."

With that, Auriemma set out for UConn's magical weekend, a weekend that could leave the men with their fourth national title in 16 years and Auriemma's women breaking Summitt's record of eight national titles at Tennessee. Sometimes the truth doesn't hurt at all. Sometimes you've just got to accept it.

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