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Dayton looks a lot like a team we've seen before

Albany, N.Y. – Among Geno Auriemma’s greatest hits over the years:

“I want to be the overdog, not the underdog.”

“If I’m playing cards, I want all the good ones.”

And it’s probably inconceivable for women’s basketball observers to fathom that, yes, the women of Storrs were once the underdog. They were, actually, in the same spot as gutty, gritty Dayton in tonight’s regional final at the Times Union Center.

It was 1991. Gampel Pavilion was still pristine. Rebecca Lobo was in high school. Stump Merrill was managing the Yankees. And the UConn Huskies were nobodies within the women’s basketball structure, playing North Carolina State and Clemson at the Palestra in the regionals.

“I felt like we had a belief,” SNY analyst Meghan (Pattyson) Culmo was saying Sunday, awash in the good ol’ days of her UConn career. “That was a credit to Geno, because we were a bunch of stiffs, really. But we had this poster of the Final Four being in New Orleans hanging in our locker room all year. We were all from Philly and the games were at the Palestra. It felt prophetic.”

And darn, if the Huskies didn’t prevail. Culmo even chuckled at what befell Auriemma during a practice to prepare for one of the games.

“He got mad at Kerry (Bascom), which he did a lot, and went to kick the bleachers,” Culmo said. “I think he meant to kick the bottom part that he thought would move. But there was a cinderblock behind it. He got really quiet for a long time. Then all of a sudden we see him sitting on the bleachers with his shoe off.”

That’s when Bascom unloaded the immortal line, “what’s the matter coach? Need a ‘toe’ truck?”

Fittingly – maybe eerily – Dayton’s players enjoy the same byplay with their coach, Jim Jabir. Andrea Hoover, the affable guard (Twitter handle: @Hoover_NoVacuum) called Jabir a “rockhead” on the podium the other day.

Dayton will be perceived, perhaps rightly so, as an underdog the size of Argentina tonight. Again, so were the Huskies nearly 25 years ago.

“I thought about this (Saturday) when Dayton was playing Louisville,” Auriemma said. “We came out of nowhere in 1991. Nobody knew anything about us. We had a great mix of seniors and juniors. We played a couple of teams everyone was convinced was way better than us. It was our first time in the regionals.

“I remember being in Dayton’s shoes, really being anxious to play NC State and then Clemson,” he said. “I thought we were the better team. Even though they had bigger names and more athletes, I thought we were the better team. And I’m sure that’s what Jim is telling his guys right now. They have lots of All Americans and we’re bigger and faster and all that, but he might be telling them ‘we have a better team.’ They’re exactly in the situation we were in. I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down when they won (Saturday) night, to be honest with you.”

Reason: Dayton’s offense, a medley of systems Jabir fused from Paul Westhead, Mike D’Antoni and European fluidity, is a joy to watch. Five players who can pass, dribble and shoot. A palooza of fundamentals. Just like UConn.

“When you think about pressure, everybody talks about defense. But I think you can put a lot of pressure on offensively,” Jabir said. “I want 5 guys on the floor who can all shoot it, pass it, and handle it. That’s a tough team to stop. If I just have to stop one guy, I have an easier chance to beat you. Some people teach teams how to run plays. I want to teach them how to play. There’s a difference.”

That is among the most Auriemma-esque quotes anyone not named Auriemma has ever uttered.

“They have legitimate basketball players on their team,” Auriemma said. “One of the things that coaches don’t do a great job of is recruiting and then coaching basketball players. You go to all these tournaments and see kids who run the fastest and jump the highest and do all these ‘wow’ things.

“Then you get them on campus,” Auriemma said, “and they can’t make a shot from anywhere. Then all these kids who are pretty good basketball players get overlooked and they end up at places like Dayton, Gonzaga or Wisconsin Green Bay and everyone is shocked at how good they are because they know how to play basketball. We try to do the same thing: find kids who really know how to play basketball.”

Which could make this a fun game. The Huskies may play on Broadway. Dayton may play to Peoria. But they once shared similar circumstances. And in some ways, still do.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

Twitter: @BCgenius






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