It comes down to winning close one
It has been the ultimate feel-good program for virtually all of Geno Auriemma's 28 years here. His players go to class, act respectfully, honor the uniform and win championships, earning all the hosannas rained on them. And plenty are rained on them by a fawning fan base and, frankly, even the terminal cynics in the media.
Which is what makes the NCAA tournament of 2013 the Twilight Zone for the UConn women. Suddenly, they are left to answer legitimate questions, well beyond their favorite color.
It starts with this one:
How come they don't win close games anymore?
It hovers over the program like cigarette smoke at Mohegan Sun. Geno knows it. The players know it. And no matter what they say or with how much conviction they say it, their only path to salvation is conquering the next close game.
Bria Hartley smiled wryly at the question. So did Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Auriemma gave Geno-esque answers, part insight, part sarcastic. Just know that they are very aware of recent history:
Three gut-busting losses to Notre Dame this season.
A close one to Baylor this season.
Two losses to Notre Dame last season in overtime.
A five-point loss at Baylor.
A one-point loss to St. John's.
An overtime killer to Notre Dame in the 2011 Final Four.
Indeed, the lone close game this group of players has won without Maya Moore was last season's Big East Tournament final, 63-54 over Notre Dame, during which they had to make several big plays at the end.
"It's motivation," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "People don't think we can win tough games anymore. We've lost to Notre Dame and to Baylor. But it doesn't take away other good games we've won against other good teams. Maybe those games weren't close, but we were the reason they weren't."
Mosqueda-Lewis later volunteered her own foibles in close losses: Failed box out at the Final Four last year. Missed open three against Notre Dame this year. Off-balance pass against Notre Dame this year.
And yet she can't fix any of it until the next opportunity presents itself. It certainly didn't Saturday in the first round when the Huskies hit Idaho over the head with a snow shovel.
"It bothers me," Hartley said. "But at the same time we haven't won any close games so it's understandable that the media and people watching the games would say that. But we believe we can win close games. We just have to prove it."
Even Auriemma has heard how some folks have hinted he's lost his fastball in close games. All relative, of course. One man's idiot is another's Dr. Naismith. So sayeth Idaho coach Jon Newlee on Saturday:
"It's beyond respect what I have for Geno. I feel like he's the James Naismith of modern women's basketball," Newlee said. "When you hear 'UConn' anywhere, you think women's basketball excellence. … He's really cool, man. I like that he respected our kids. Honestly, it's like you're on the floor with John Wooden."
Auriemma responded, "It's a long way from what I was called last week. I've progressed from whatever I was after the Notre Dame game."
And as to the suggestion that Geno can't win close ones anymore?
"Coaches get way too much credit for winning and way too much blame for losing. It's been my experience all 28 years here that coaches lose more games than they win," he said. "You think Tom Brady and Peyton Manning leave the huddle and ever change the play, or do they exactly what the coaches say?
"They see something," he said, "and go, 'that ain't gonna work, but here's what will.' It's up to the coach to put players in the best position to be able to make those decisions. Where I failed the team is that I didn't put them in position to make plays to win games."
Then Auriemma started rolling.
"I remember playing Tennessee at the XL Center and we're down three late," he said. "I was a genius. I called a timeout and I thought there's no way they're going to let Diana (Taurasi) get open. But I know Maria Conlon is going to be open. And if there's one person in this building who is going to make a three to tie it, it's Maria."
(Auriemma's tongue was affixed to his cheek, just in case you missed the sarcasm).
"So what does Tennessee do?" he said. "They double-teamed Maria. 'D' is wide open and makes the three. And I had 50 men's coaches call me that night for the out-of-bounds play. I'm like, 'you've got to be (kidding) me.'"
"It's the nature of coaching," he said. "You've got to live with your decisions. The people who second-guess them have the benefit of doing it after the fact."
Auriemma knows that's nature of sports. He does it with the teams he roots for. Part of the fun. That doesn't mean he's enjoying the arrows pointed in his direction.
"For the people who (second-guess), I'd say this: next time one of your kids goes out and does something really stupid, I'm going to write in the paper that you should have thought of that and made sure they didn't do it," he said. "It comes down to this: Someone has to make a play based on what they see. What does that come down to? One kid making one play. We've been fortunate that we've had those kinds of players. Notre Dame has those kinds of players right now."
Auriemma believes he does, too.
But they've got to prove it.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
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