Geno Knows Win Over Strong Baylor Team Will Pay Dividends

Playing Baylor and coach Kim Mulkey is just what the doctor ordered, says Geno Auriemma. The UConn coach likes to play the best. (USA Today)

There is legitimacy for the reason UConn did not view Monday's game with No. 7 Baylor with a starry-eyed stare. The game was significant to the Lady Bears in their post-Brittney Griner season.

But these games hold different value to UConn, the eight-time national champion. They are not barometers that measure potential. They provide no milestones to predict the future.

What they do provide is an opportunity to compete, which is what UConn did every minute of its 66-55 win. And that's something the Huskies get perhaps seven or eight times a season.

"You know, I am living the American dream," coach Geno Auriemma said. "Just think, a little Italian kid who snuck over [to the United States] on a boat like Leonardo DiCaprio [in the movie "Titanic"]. I know his boat eventually sank. Mine didn't. But I think my ticket was the same as his."

UConn came into the game having defeated five Top 25 teams by an average of 22.0 points.

"We know a few things about our team already," Auriemma said. "We've won at Penn State, Maryland and Duke. I know we are capable of winning big games against good teams on the road. But you just need to keep doing it if you want to be considered [a great] team. Every time there is a challenge, you need to accept it. I go looking for these kind of challenges. I love these games. And we thrive in this type of environment."

In that sense, it was a night for seniors Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley to measure their progress.

"When you play someone who is really good and have great success it's a springboard to being very good," Auriemma said.

Hartley overcame a first half that Auriemma called "unacceptable" to score 17 points. Dolson had early foul trouble and scored 10 with seven rebounds.

It was a night for sophomore Breanna Stewart, UConn's leading scorer and the reigning most outstanding player of the Final Four, to amend for last season's seven-minute, zero-point debacle against Baylor at the XL Center.

And after launching an air ball on her first shot, she led the Huskies with 18 points and 11 rebounds. But she also shot 4 of 14 in 39 minutes.

Most specifically, it was a night to have some fun, and counterpunch with Baylor senior guard Odyssey Sims, the nation's leading scorer.

Averaging 31.8, Sims scored a season-low 20 on 4 of 25 from the field. She scored 10 points from the free throw line and did not score in the final 11 minutes after her three cut UConn's lead to 50-49.

In many ways, she was overshadowed by her former AAU teammate. UConn sophomore Moriah Jefferson scored 13 points and had no turnovers in 38 minutes.

Last season UConn lost four times, three Notre Dame, a team it eventually beat in the national semifinals. The other loss was to Baylor, with Griner, at home. And the Lady Bears, upset by Louisville, did not even make it to the Elite Eight.

So what does one take from what happened Monday?

"And now I am surrounded by all of these USA Basketball stars," said Auriemma, the two-time coach of the senior national team. "We talk about winning gold medals and national championships at UConn. That is the constant with the players I recruit. So it's not a coincidence that it happens. They are committed to it."

On Monday, UConn placed seven players in USA Basketball's 33-player pool from which the 2014 World Championship team will be picked. Along with Olympians Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird are current players Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart.

UConn's 24-game winning streak ties it for sixth all-time with the one put together by the 2010-11 team from Jan. 5 to March 29, 2011. UConn has also won 94 of its past 97 nonconference games over the past seven seasons.

Beginning with Sunday's game at Rutgers, and likely ending with the regular season finale at Louisville on March 3, the chance for UConn to lose is slim.

"We don't look at it that way," Auriemma said. "When people talked about the Big East, before Notre Dame came to be what it is now, they would say that it wasn't that strong.

"Well, it didn't look that strong when we played [a Big East opponent]. It looked like a bad conference. But when everyone else played each other in the conference there often were great games.

"Then when the NCAA Tournament rolled around, all of our teams [in the Big East] did really well. We had good teams. They just didn't look good against us."

The American, in its first season, has only three teams with strong NCAA credentials – UConn, Louisville and Rutgers. And next season Louisville with join the ACC, Rutgers the Big Ten.

"I don't know where [The American] is relative to that," Auriemma said. "But you asked the question, I didn't bring it up: There are a lot of champions from big-time conferences that don't look good against us.

"It's not going to last forever. We're just going to enjoy it while it lasts."