TAMPA, Fla. - He has since coached in 26 conference tournament title contests and 11 national championship games.
But never has UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma had a more nerve-wracking experience than the first time the Huskies played for the Big East Tournament crown. And he was not even at the arena.
Serving a school-imposed suspension for a scheduling matter, Auriemma stayed at the team hotel getting updates from Seton Hall’s Walsh Gymnasium over the phone from his wife, Kathy. It was only until 15 minutes after the Huskies had secured an 84-65 win over Providence that he could walk into the gym to celebrate with his players.
On Tuesday, he celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first conference tourney title with a recruiting trip to Texas alongside associate head coach Chris Dailey to do a home visit with Class of 2020 recruit Hannah Gusters.
“Wow. Wow. It’s been 30 years. That’s incredible,” Auriemma said Monday night after second-ranked UConn completed its 16th perfect league regular season with a 57-47 win over South Florida in American Athletic Conference action at the Yuengling Center. “That’s actually incredible.
“It’s a whole other era filled with great memories. Those people are still around so it’s like I’m reminded of it every day. Those were good days, amazing days. That team was one of the more fun teams to coach. Everything we were doing was new and something that had not been done before.”
It was a team that included 1987 Bristol Eastern graduate Laura Lishness, the first UConn player to finish with more than 1,000 points (1,303), 500 rebounds (671), and 500 assists (531). She was the Big East Freshman of the Year pick in 1988.
Auriemma was entering his fourth season at UConn and welcomed a large recruiting class that included Pennsylvania natives Debbie Baer (Fiske), Wendy Davis, Meghan Pattyson (Culmo), and Stacey Wetzel. They joined sophomores Kerry Bascom and Lishness and juniors Kris Lamb and Heidi Robbins as the nucleus of a club picked for third in the preseason coaches poll.
The Huskies took command of the league race on Feb. 11 when Robbins sank a 3-pointer - the only 3 she would try in 90 career games - at the buzzer to give them their first win over Villanova, 64-63, at the Field House. A week later, they clinched their first regular season title outright with a 70-65 win over Providence before a record home crowd of 1,860.
But before UConn faced Syracuse on Feb. 22, it was discovered the Huskies’ preseason scrimmage with Eastern Connecticut State under the rules then existing should count as a game, putting the Huskies over the NCAA limit. The Orangewomen, coached by current AAC associate commissioner Barb Jacobs, agreed to cancel their trip to Storrs to allow UConn to play in the Big East Tournament.
Auriemma, though, was suspended for the final regular season game at St. John’s and for the league tournament. Dailey took over.
The Huskies didn’t miss a beat.
“CD just made us feel so comfortable,” said Fiske, the analyst for UConn’s coverage on ESPN Radio. “She and Geno have always worked so well together so you knew we’d stay on the same page. Even though it was difficult circumstances and it was new for us, we were calm and focused.”
The Huskies rolled at St. John’s and into the postseason.
They defeated Georgetown 85-73 in the quarterfinals and rode Bascom’s 29 points to a 65-45 semifinal win over Boston College. Archrival Providence stood between them and their first tourney title and NCAA bid.
It was not televised and the only radio coverage was by the UConn campus station WHUS-FM.
“We couldn’t get it on the radio so I was getting updates over the phone,” Auriemma said. “I just had this feeling we were going to be OK. I had so much confidence in that team, so much faith in them. I so desperately wanted them to win so they could see what it felt like to win a championship.”
In front of an announced crowd of 714, Providence built four seven-point leads. UConn ended the first half with a 12-2 run to go ahead 38-35 at intermission. The Huskies never trailed again. The Friars cut a 12-point deficit in half with 3:27 left, but UConn would score the game’s final 13 points to win going away. Bascom was the tournament Most Outstanding Player and Lishness had the first triple-double (14 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in program history.
“I remember that game against Providence mostly because of how much fun I was having,” Lishness said in 2014. “We were playing well. People were making shots. We were going to win a championship. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Auriemma, who could not attend the league banquet to accept his first Big East Coach of the Year award as part of the suspension, then appeared as his players went wild.
“I remember walking into the gym and it was an unbelievable experience,” Auriemma said. “Those kids were some of my favorite people to be around and still are.”
UConn would be the No. 8 seed in the East Regional for its first NCAA game. The season ended with a loss to La Salle at the Field House.
The Huskies’ latest AAC regular season title was their sixth straight and No. 25 overall. Top-seeded UConn (28-2) will play either East Carolina or SMU on Saturday in an AAC Tournament quarterfinal game at Mohegan Sun Arena. Three wins would bring a 24th league tournament crown.
But there’s nothing like the first time. As a reminder of how long ago it was and how times have changed, Auriemma was told that Bascom - a three-time Big East Player of the Year and the Huskies’ first All-American - turned 50 on Sunday.
“I was only 15 years older than her,” Auriemma said with a shake of his head. “Now, I’m 45 years older than my players. Forty-five. It’s like they don’t understand a word I say.”