By JOHN ALTAVILLA, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
6:42 PM EDT, March 27, 2014
STORRS – Geno Auriemma works the sidelines in a land of steady habits. Therefore, he is aware his fans do not like change or surprises.
They expect his UConn program to win its ninth national championship in two weeks.
He hears about it on TV. He reads about it in the papers. Friends at his restaurants tend to bring it up between sips of wine.
And as he prepares for Saturday's Sweet 16 game in the Lincoln Regional against No. 12 seed BYU, and perhaps an Elite Eight game against No. 3 Texas A&M or No. 7 DePaul, he knows resistance might not be as substantial as some assumed when the tournament began.
"I am sure the talk [before the regionals] will be that if it wasn't already easy enough for Connecticut to get to the Final Four, now it's going to be really easy, because No. 2 [Duke] and No. 4 [Nebraska] are out," Auriemma said.
"That would be kind of disrespectful to the teams that are out there. I'm looking forward to going out there, if for no other reason than to share in the experience [DePaul coach] Doug Bruno and Jeff Judkins [BYU] are going to have. I am kind of pumped about that."
At this time of year, Auriemma often takes questions about the seeming lack of parity in women's basketball. And he is as honest about it as he can be; admitting that the game has faults, while urging programs to take the challenge of winning more seriously.
Now he looks at the horizon and sees something different. The top four seeds [UConn, Notre Dame, Tennessee and South Carolina] are all alive. But No. 2 seeds Duke and West Virginia lost second-round games, as did No. 4 seeds Nebraska and Purdue.
No. 7 LSU is alive in Louisville. No. 5 Oklahoma State plays the Irish in South Bend. And No. 7 DePaul, coached by his friend and Olympic assistant, and the No. 12 Cougars, survived.
"You start to understand that the game is changing a little bit," Auriemma said. "It's not automatic anymore that if you are a higher seed you are going to win. It's been rewarding to see great teams play great games and get rewarded with wins that leads to having new teams in the regionals.
"When I watched Duke [the No. 2 seed beaten by DePaul], I just shook my head. DePaul reminded me of my 1991 team [UConn's first Final Four team]. They just play with a certain unique style that is fun to watch. So I am not surprised there have been upsets."
Still he knows what he has. And what he has is on a major roll. The Huskies (36-0) have not trailed for a single second since the start for the American Athletic Conference tournament five games ago. They have won those games by a total of 158 points.
Perhaps the brightest spot in UConn's run to the national championship last year was the performance of freshman Breanna Stewart. In the five games she played in the NCAA Tournament, she set a UConn scoring record with 105 points and was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four.
By any definition, that is called a breakout month.
Stewart continued the momentum of last year by becoming the AAC player of the year and the MOP of its postseason tournament. And she has scored 40 in the first two games this season.
Now two games into another run at a championship, the Huskies are getting production from everyone. Their starters all scored in double figures in Tuesday's second-round win against St. Joseph's, the ninth time that's happened this year.
Junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored just the 14th triple-double in NCAA Division I women's history during the 92-51 win.
And the Huskies are hoping sophomore Moriah Jefferson's dash into the national spotlight continues.
"My confidence is sky high right now, through the roof," Jefferson said.
Jefferson has already had a dream season for a point guard.
"She has played so well this season," Stewart said. "She's come out and been our floor general and led this team from the point. I think sometimes she doesn't get the recognition she deserves and if she keeps playing the way she's been playing throughout the NCAA Tournament, people are going to have to look at her a little more."
Last season she scored in double figures just seven times, three times in the NCAA Tournament. This year she already has 19 and is leading the AAC with a field goal percentage of 58.3.
But her true impact has been in the way she controls the basketball. She has 176 assists, more than double her total as a freshman (69). She also led the conference in assists per game (5.0) and assist-turnover ratio (2.9), which was 12th in the nation.
Among the great point guards in UConn history, her sophomore season is the best in terms of assist/turnover ratio. Diana Taurasi's 2.51 in 2001-02 is the closest to it.
"She gets better with every game she plays," St. Joseph's coach Cindy Griffin said. "She gets more comfortable. She plays with a lot of confidence, way beyond her years."
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant