STORRS - After seeing his UConn women’s basketball team qualify for the NCAA Tournament 29 straight times and watching 29 consecutive selection shows, Geno Auriemma could be excused if his focus on the television set wasn’t his best.
But a comment by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas during the March 13 show on the network caught the Hall of Fame coach’s attention.
“They handle it and they embrace it. They’re ones who think pressure is a privilege and that comes from Geno Auriemma,” Bilas said. “I think they address it, don’t act like they are above it, they address and attack it head on.”
Auriemma has long acknowledged his respect for Bilas from the former Duke star’s playing days in the 1980s through his work at ESPN. It was Bilas, after UConn walloped Tennessee in the 2000 national championship game in Philadelphia, who said there was “a changing of the guard” in the sport. The Huskies have won nine more titles since while Tennessee went back-to-back behind Candace Parker in 2007-08 but has gone nine straight seasons without a Final Four berth.
Bilas gets it.
“Jay is incredibly perceptive and insightful,” Auriemma said. “He doesn’t give you the obvious because he’s able to see it from a player’s standpoint and a coach’s standpoint. He was both.
“When you hear people talk like that it makes me feel like we’re doing it in a way that’s hard to do. The one way to lower expectations and the one way to not have to deal with all the pressure and all of this is to not be very good. So if you’re not very good then you never have to deal with any of this.”
The top-seeded Huskies (34-0 and winners of 109 in a row) continue their bid for a record fifth straight national championship Saturday when they take on No. 4 UCLA at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport.
For the last two decades they have been the biggest game on anyone’s schedule, the game their opponent circles on the calendar before the season starts.
They aren’t perfect, though they are 11-0 in national championship games and have four of the top five winning streaks in NCAA history. But most nights they take the other team’s best shot, handle it, and give more back. And they do it at home and on the road. They own the NCAA record with a 99-game home winning streak from 2007-12. Their current 38-game road winning streak is another record.
“Obviously it’s a compliment if you think about it, but that’s what we’re taught to handle by Coach Auriemma,” UConn guard Kia Nurse said. “Coach Auriemma tells you right away that you’re going to have to deal with pressure when you come here. But ultimately it just comes down to the task you have at hand that day. If you take all the outside stuff - all the people that like to say stuff out of the inner circle - all that is left is us and our support staff and our coaches, and we’ll be alright.”
Consistency with their effort is a key.
The Huskies have not lost back-to-back games since they had a three-game losing streak to end their 1992-93 season. That streak is now at 883.
UConn also does not play to the level of its opponents. It has not lost to a team that did not make at least the NCAA Sweet 16 in that season since 2005 (Boston College) and it has lost just once to a team that did not reach the NCAA Tournament since 1993 (Syracuse in 1996).
“Pressure is definitely a privilege for the right people,” UConn forward Gabby Williams said. “Some people can crack under pressure, but what the coaches have built here … The guys who come here make plays under pressure.
“It forces you to be smarter than the other team. “OK, who is cracking right now? Who is not in it? And you have to take advantage of that. I love it because you only get so many chances and every single possession matters. Every single hustle play matters. The level of competition and competitiveness comes out of everybody and it just rises.”
So the eyes of the women’s basketball world will be on the Huskies again this weekend. If they get past UCLA (24-8), they’ll face either third-seeded Maryland or No. 10 Oregon in Monday’s regional final.
They’ll have almost all of a sellout crowd at Webster Bank Arena behind them. But it’s about what player will make the right play at the right time.
“We talk to the players a lot about, ‘If you didn’t want this, then you shouldn’t have come here, Now that you’re here if you want it to be different, it’s not going to be. So you need to function in this environment or you need to go and play somewhere else,’” Auriemma said. “This is not going away. The expectations that you have had placed on you are not going away. And you are not going to be able to hide from it. It takes a lot of courage to play here.
“Playing at Connecticut is not easy, because if you play poorly at Connecticut, if you don’t live up to expectations, then the entire country knows and you are exposed as, ‘That kid is not as good as they think they are or as we thought they were.’ The upside is that if you go to Connecticut and you play great, everybody in the country knows that you’re a great player, because you’re proving it in the toughest environment that there is.”