STORRS - After seeing his UConn womenâs 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 wasnât his best.
But a comment by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas during the March 13 show on the network caught the Hall of Fame coachâs attention.
âThey handle it and they embrace it. Theyâre ones who think pressure is a privilege and that comes from Geno Auriemma,â Bilas said. âI think they address it, donât act like they are above it, they address and attack it head on.â
Auriemma has long acknowledged his respect for Bilas from the former Duke starâs 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 âa changing of the guardâ 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.
âJay is incredibly perceptive and insightful,â Auriemma said. âHe doesnât give you the obvious because heâs able to see it from a playerâs standpoint and a coachâs standpoint. He was both.
âWhen you hear people talk like that it makes me feel like weâre doing it in a way thatâs 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 youâre not very good then you never have to deal with any of this.â
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 anyoneâs schedule, the game their opponent circles on the calendar before the season starts.
They arenât 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 teamâs 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.
âObviously itâs a compliment if you think about it, but thatâs what weâre taught to handle by Coach Auriemma,â UConn guard Kia Nurse said. âCoach Auriemma tells you right away that youâre 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 weâll be alright.â
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).
âPressure is definitely a privilege for the right people,â UConn forward Gabby Williams said. âSome people can crack under pressure, but what the coaches have built here âŠ The guys who come here make plays under pressure.
âIt forces you to be smarter than the other team. âOK, 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.â
So the eyes of the womenâs basketball world will be on the Huskies again this weekend. If they get past UCLA (24-8), theyâll face either third-seeded Maryland or No. 10 Oregon in Mondayâs regional final.
Theyâll have almost all of a sellout crowd at Webster Bank Arena behind them. But itâs about what player will make the right play at the right time.
âWe talk to the players a lot about, âIf you didnât want this, then you shouldnât have come here, Now that youâre here if you want it to be different, itâs not going to be. So you need to function in this environment or you need to go and play somewhere else,ââ Auriemma said. âThis 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.
âPlaying at Connecticut is not easy, because if you play poorly at Connecticut, if you donât live up to expectations, then the entire country knows and you are exposed as, âThat kid is not as good as they think they are or as we thought they were.â The upside is that if you go to Connecticut and you play great, everybody in the country knows that youâre a great player, because youâre proving it in the toughest environment that there is.â