UConn celebrates all over again

Bria Hartley, center, carries the NCAA championship trophy as the UConn women's basketball team returns to a campus-wide welcome in Storrs Wednesday, April 9, 2014.
Bria Hartley, center, carries the NCAA championship trophy as the UConn women's basketball team returns to a campus-wide welcome in Storrs Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Tim Cook/The Day

Storrs — Another day, another national championship celebration.

Amid the kind of reverie that could probably never get old, the University of Connecticut welcomed home its women’s basketball team late Wednesday afternoon, saluting a squad that the night before had secured a perfect season and the program’s ninth national title with a 79-58 rout of Notre Dame.

It had been 24 hours since the UConn community had feted a newly minted national champion.

“All around the country, people understand that this is the center of the universe of college basketball,” Warde Manuel, the school’s athletic director, told a crowd gathered on Fairfield Way Plaza, an expanse framed by the Student Union, the School of Business and Gampel Pavilion.

On Tuesday, UConn’s men’s basketball team had returned home from Arlington, Texas, having claimed the program’s fourth national championship the previous night with a 60-54 win over Kentucky.

“When we watched the guys play Saturday night (in a semifinal game), we knew after they won that something special was happening,” Geno Auriemma, the women’s coach, said. “When we won Sunday (also a semifinal), I was nervous. But when they won Monday, it was like it was destiny.

“We were supposed to do this.”

In winning men’s and women’s championships in the same season, UConn duplicated a feat it achieved in 2004.

Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley, the two seniors on the women’s team, struggled to keep their emotions in check as they described the admiration and pride they felt for their teammates, their school and their much-traveled fans.

“Four years ago, I came here for the feeling I got on this campus,” Dolson said. “It’s been an honor to play for you.”

Hartley recalled coming off the court near the end of the team’s thrashing of Notre Dame. Auriemma locked her in a long embrace, as he had Dolson.

“It was the best moment of my career,” Hartley said.

With a victory parade and rally scheduled for both teams Sunday in Hartford, the celebrating has only just begun.

“It’s been madness,” Michael Seftner, a UConn sophomore from New Fairfield, said while waiting for the women’s team to arrive. “People are in the trees.”

His twin brother, Matthew, said Tuesday’s rally for the men’s team, followed by the women’s success hours later, had united the campus. While the men’s victory had occasioned some celebratory property damage following the game, the aftermath of the women’s victory had been more subdued, the brothers agreed.

“We love our basketball here,” Matthew Seftner said.

Stephanie Ho, a freshman from Woburn, Mass., said she’s never felt so much school spirit — anywhere.

“The women are crazy — no one can stay with them,” said Kayla Sgarlata, an Ellington freshman who was merely stating fact.

Joanne and Ralph Cimino of Litchfield, perhaps representative of the UConn women’s loyal, nonstudent fan base, said they traveled 90 minutes to attend the team’s homecoming.

“We’re from the other boondocks,” Joanne Cimino quipped. “This is one of the few times we get to see them. It’s hard to get tickets to the games.”

Tim Tolokan, a longtime member of UConn’s athletic administration, can remember when that wasn’t always the case.

Tolokan, now a part-time special assistant to the athletic director and curator of UConn’s sports museum, marveled at how far and how fast UConn’s basketball programs have come.

“It all started with the men winning the NIT (National Invitation Tournament) in ’88,” he said. “What’s happened since is unbelievable.”

In 1995, Tolokan added, the UConn women went 35-0 and won the first of Auriemma’s nine national championships, while the men advanced deep into the NCAA tournament before losing to UCLA.

“Three weeks later,” he said, “the legislature approved UConn 2000, a $1 billion project that started to transform this university.”

On the basketball court, at least, the transformation’s complete.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

The NCAA champion UConn women's basketball team is welcomed by members of the NCAA Championship men's basketball team as the UConn women return to a campus-wide welcome in Storrs Wednesday, April 9, 2014.
The NCAA champion UConn women's basketball team is welcomed by members of the NCAA Championship men's basketball team as the UConn women return to a campus-wide welcome in Storrs Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Tim Cook/The Day
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