ALBANY, N.Y. - Geno Auriemma has built a program at UConn over the past two decades where anything less than winning a national championship is considered a failure.
That’s what happens when you win 11 titles in 22 years.
The undefeated Huskies will face defending champion South Carolina on Monday night with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
“The expectation level is so high, but we created it,” said Auriemma, who is trying to reach a record 11th straight Final Four. “Believe me, I’m far from complaining.”
The Hall of Fame coach joked that if the Huskies don’t win a championship this season after falling short last year he’ll have to move and start shopping at different places. If they don’t beat South Carolina on Monday night they may not be allowed back in the state.
That said, the Huskies don’t feel any added pressure facing the Gamecocks as they are used to it.
“The day you sign your letter of intent, every game you play. There’s no getting around that,” Auriemma said of the pressure his team constantly faces. “Everywhere we go when people play us, we’re playing Connecticut. That’s what these kids live with every day.”
The Albany Regional final will pit the past two NCAA champions which is a rare occurrence. It’s the first time the previous two national champions have met in the NCAA Tournament since 1997 when UConn faced Tennessee.
“You’ve got the defending champs versus the ones been keeping the trophy in the case for a while,” South Carolina star A’ja Wilson said. “It definitely does feel like one of those games and I think Albany has a great atmosphere. It’s a lot of blue up here.”
Albany led attendance in the Sweet 16 with more than 10,000 fans coming to watch Friday’s semifinals. More than 8,500 tickets were sold as of Saturday afternoon for Monday night’s game.
“To see just a packed house like this, it shows how the growth of the game has changed and that’s something that we want and if UConn and South Carolina is a big game matchup that brings people together to watch the game, hey, we are going to do our best to stay within our system and play it,” Wilson added.
The Huskies had their 111-game winning streak and run of four straight titles end in the Final Four last year with a loss to Mississippi State. The Gamecocks went on to beat their SEC rival for the title.
“They are just a team that’s on a mission,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “They’re probably more hungry than they’ve ever been because they didn’t win the national championship last year, but that also puts them in a place in which it is unfamiliar for them. They’re used to being the defending national champions.”
South Carolina and UConn met on Feb. 1 and UConn won by 25 points. Both teams expect this to be a very different game.
“One thing that was brought up yesterday we like to think we’re not the same team that played in February,” said UConn senior Kia Nurse. “Everyone gets better as the season goes on and it should be a good game either way.”
Wilson was just 4-for-18 in that game and she has been nearly unstoppable since, leading the Gamecocks to an 11-2 mark.
“I think we have a lot more contribution from everyone. I think everybody’s confidence has increased and just the growth of this team has gotten a lot better since February,” the three-time SEC player of the year said.
“I think the SEC Tournament kind of really showed that and that’s good. We need that going in, especially being in this tournament and not necessarily playing against UConn, but just in this tournament as a whole. I think our young ones really have grown up in different ways mentally, and that’s what you need. So I think the biggest thing is just our growth.”
They’ll need it to beat UConn for the first time. The Huskies have won all six meetings, all by double digits.