TAMPA, Florida — No, it doesn’t get routine. In the final seconds Tuesday night, Geno Auriemma threw his hands toward the floor of the Amalie Arena as if he had never imagined such a crazy thing happening to his Connecticut Huskies, and maybe he couldn’t.
Ten national titles? Never a single loss in an NCAA championship game? Almost unfathomable.
“It’s too much for me to think about,” Auriemma said later. “It’s too much.”
The 63-53 victory over Notre Dame was more about defense than offense, but the Fighting Irish had shown their grit and poise. It’s just that UConn possesses those traits too, making timely shots when the wheels could have come off. Breanna Stewart won most outstanding player for the third straight year but immediately pointed out that the award should have gone to point guard Moriah Jefferson. It could have gone to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who hit the dagger shots.
“These guys made some plays in the second half that kind of showed our true character,” Auriemma said. “Every time we were challenged, we responded.”
He also said about his players, who had just won their third straight: “They didn’t trust very much early in the season. They just thought everything was going to be really easy. . . . I didn’t like them in October and they didn’t like me, either. How do you tell a group of guys who have won two national championships that what they’re doing isn’t good enough.”
Who are the Division I coaches who have won 10 national titles? UCLA’s John Wooden on the men’s side, right at 10. And the guy who built his empire in Storrs. ESPN kept throwing Phil Jackson and his 10 NBA titles in there, too.
The common thread, Auriemma said, “We all coached some of the most iconic players to play the game of basketball.”
How is this a Philadelphia story? That’s crazy, too. One of Tuesday’s coaches followed the other on the St. Joseph’s women’s basketball staff, each coming to Hawk Hill from jobs in the Philadelphia Catholic League, one going on to create the greatest dynasty their sport has ever seen, the other its current foil.
A year ago, when Auriemma and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw had lobbed hostile verbal volleys back and forth, their old Hawks boss Jim Foster put it best: That’s just talking in Philadelphia.
Auriemma and McGraw exchanged what appeared to be genuine pleasantries just before Tuesday’s tipoff. They soon seemed to have a mutual antipathy for the striped shirts who had joined them out there.
The son of a factory worker who arrived in Norristown at age 7 from Montella, Italy, is on top again. It all seems routine now, but nobody could have predicted it three decades ago when Foster convinced Auriemma to join his Bishop McDevitt High staff, then Auriemma moved with Foster to Hawk Hill for a year before moving on.
Foster said Auriemma was “older than his years,” because Geno’s mother spoke very little English and his father basically none at all, so the son grew up with added responsibilities as the family communicator, “the main purveyor of information.”
Despite being in New Zealand, Foster heard Auriemma’s answer when asked the day before the game if he missed being an underdog. Foster loved it.
“It’s that whole Rocky Balboa thing in Philadelphia,” Auriemma had said. “The city has a statue of a guy who made a movie, a fake boxer, in front of one of the great art museums in the world. You know what I mean? It’s a crazy city.”
Auriemma gets a large share of the best players, and he takes them to higher ground. Could other coaches do the same? That’s moot. Auriemma created the whole UConn culture from scratch.
“I don’t think any of the coaches should apologize for getting the best players,” Auriemma said. “I think that’s part of the job description when you sign up to be a coach. A lot of coaches think it’s noble and honorable to recruit bad players and make them better. I’ve been there. It [stinks].”
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