UNCASVILLE — Geno Auriemma was 34 when his UConn women’s basketball team clinched its first NCAA tournament berth by winning the 1989 Big East tournament title.
The Hall of Fame coach turns 68 two weeks from today so the NCAA tournament has been a part of March for half of his life.
The Huskies will participate in their 33rd straight NCAA tournament starting next week, earning the Big East’s automatic bid with a 70-40 rout of Villanova Monday in the conference tournament final at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I remember trying to get our first one,” Auriemma said. “I remember when we got our first one and how unbelievable it felt to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. That’s every kid’s dream when they come to college. I can’t say I feel the same when we get into the tournament even though there were times this year I was just hoping we’d get into the tournament.
“It probably doesn’t feel the same as it did back then that we’re actually going to be playing in the tournament. The fact you’re putting yourself in that position every year up to this point means that every year you’re one of the teams that has a chance. That’s basically all you can ask for is to have a chance. That’s what we do at UConn. That’s what I get paid to do, give ourselves a chance to win a national championship.”
Only Tennessee, which is expected to get an at-large bid to its 40th straight NCAA tournament when the 68-team field is announced Sunday, and Stanford, which wrapped up its 34th consecutive berth by winning the Pac-12 tournament title, have longer runs than the Huskies’ 33 in a row,
UConn (25-5) will take a season-high 10-game winning streak into the event after taking home its ninth consecutive conference tournament title.
“I think the biggest aspect of growth we’ve had is just how far we’ve come with our adversity, everything that we’ve been hit with on and off the court,” UConn guard Evina Westbrook said. “And just now getting everyone back is a really good feeling. You can tell in the way we play.”
Auriemma has led the Huskies to NCAA records of 11 national championships and 21 Final Four appearances, including 13 in a row. They’ve earned 27 consecutive Sweet 16 berths, tying Tennessee’s record (1982-2008). Their postseason record — conference and NCAA tournaments — since 1994 is 214-23 (.903).
UConn is expected to be a No. 2 regional seed, which means it would host first- and second-round games at Gampel Pavilion. Whether the Huskies will get a desired slot in the Bridgeport Regional will be revealed on Sunday night when the field of 68 is announced.
“That doesn’t mean (competing for a national championship) is going to happen every year,” Auriemma said. “That doesn’t mean it’s realistic every year. But every year we have to give ourselves a chance, and it starts with getting in first. As every taxpayer knows, that’s the least I can do for what they pay me, right?”
Trying to play three games in three days was tough on Paige Bueckers, and it showed.
It was obvious to Auriemma, who didn’t put her in until the start of the second quarter Monday and then limited her to four second-half minutes for a total of nine with the Huskies in command.
“Playing two games in two days, you knew that she was not going to be feeling 100 percent because when she is, she’s back to her old self at practice,” Auriemma said. “So the physical part is real. The frustration part is not being able to do it when she wants to on demand whenever she feels like it. That’s a separate issue. At some point you have to adjust to that. You either don’t play at all or you understand that you at 85 percent can still be better than 90 percent of the kids playing college basketball. Don’t let your frustrations get in the way of that.
“But she’s a kid and she has never faced this kind of adversity before. It’s a learning process for her just like it would be for anyone else.”
Bueckers had surgery on her left knee on Dec. 13 and missed 19 games. She returned to action on Feb. 25 against St John’s.
In five games, the sophomore guard is averaging 6.0 points on 52.2 percent shooting, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 14.2 minutes. She played 13 minutes in each of her first two games back then 18 minutes in the quarterfinal win over Georgetown and in the semifinal win over Marquette prior to the final.
Now UConn has at least 10 days between games.
“She’s got a lot of work to do,” Auriemma said. “She has her good days. She has her bad days. She has her good days mentally. She has her bad days mentally.
“My big thing is to get her physically feeling better. But I think she has to get her mind right now because she hasn’t been in that mode for three months, whatever it is now. So that’s going to be job number one the next 10, 11 days.”
UConn senior guard Christyn Williams was named one of five finalists for the 2022 Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, which honors the nation’s top shooting guard.
Williams, who was chosen the Most Outstanding Player of the Big East tournament Monday, is averaging a team-high 14.6 points on 47.4 percent shooting from the floor and 3.3 rebounds.
The other finalists are Sonya Morris (DePaul), Kierstan Bell (Florida Gulf Coast), Taylor Mikesell (Ohio State), and Taylor Robertson (Oklahoma).
Neill covers UConn men’s basketball and UConn football teams, and he keeps a finger on the pulse of Connecticut sports. For live game updates, and more insight into UConn athletics, player transfers, and team changesfollow Neill on Twitter: @NeillOstroutFacebook: JINeillO, and Instagram: @NeillOstrout.