NCAA women’s notes: Baylor’s Collen brings new perspective to UConn success
Storrs — Baylor has been staying at a hotel near Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, about a 45-minute drive from the UConn campus, as Bears coach Nicki Collen describes it.
So when she was asked Sunday, a day before facing No. 2 UConn in the second round of the Seattle 3 Regional in the NCAA tournament, Collen’s compliment was from a whole different perspective, although she meant it sincerely.
“It’s funny,” Collen said. “As we are staying 45 minutes away and doing this drive every day, I think one of the most impressive things that Geno (Auriemma, Hall of Fame UConn coach) did here was ever get someone to come here.
“Which sounds horrible, but, you know that they have to fly into Hartford for an official visit and then they have to make that drive. I told Tony (Greene, Baylor assistant coach), I said, ‘Well, they can put shades in the limo and, like, talk about the (11) championships. Now no one’s looking out the window at the woods anymore.’
“I think what’s so impressive is kind of the beginning here, why they became good.”
Collen was the radio broadcaster for Colorado State during the 2000-01 season. Her husband, Tom, was the head coach. UConn defeated Colorado State 89-44 in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a UConn team which boasted Asjha Jones, Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi.
That was Nicki Collen’s introduction to Auriemma and his body of work.
“My husband had just said to our whole booster club, ‘Really excited about how we finished, I just want to avoid that 8-9 hole (to have to face No. 1 UConn),’” Collen said. “And immediately we went up on the bracket and no one knew whether to clap, cheer, because he had just said all we want to do is avoid the 8-9 game against UConn.”
Since then, there have been many women’s basketball encounters between Collen and Auriemma, although the two never met as head coaches until Monday night.
Collen was the assistant coach for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and the head coach of the Atlanta Dream. She has coached UConn alums Morgan Tuck and Tiffany Hayes. Collen said that, in her experience, the UConn players were always game-ready when they got to the pros.
“I’ll admit when I was in the pros, everybody knew that UConn players were ready. Like, I think that was the thing, when you coach in the pros and you’re scouting players, UConn players were pro-ready when they got there,” Collen said.
“They were pro-ready terminology-wise. They were pro-ready in terms of spacing and understanding the game.”
Thanks for the memories
• After 33 years and 15 national championships between the UConn men’s and women’s basketball teams, the original floor at Gampel Pavilion will be replaced this year following commencement.
That made Monday’s UConn-Baylor women’s matchup in the second round of the NCAA tournament a sellout, the final game to be played on those floorboards. The school’s Board of Trustees earmarked $688,480 for the project in December.
Auriemma said recently that among his many memories from the building was the women’s first game there on Jan. 31, 1990, a 76-64 victory over Georgetown.
Previously, UConn played in the Hugh Greer Field House.
“It was going to the field house from there,” Auriemma said. “It was like going from black-and-white TV to watching Star Wars on the big screen in HDTV. It was just mind-blowing for the kids and for the fans and for everybody.”
Auriemma, in his 38th season, said that people walking around campus saw the lights from Gampel and didn’t quite know what to think.
“They thought, like, a UFO landed in the middle of campus and they all came in to find out what was going on,” Auriemma said. “They’re all lined up around the concourse looking down on the court. We were all laughing on the bench.
“That’s one (memory). There are others, some pleasant, some not so pleasant because we won or because we lost or a kid got injured or a kid made some amazing plays. A lot of amazing memories.”
• With 2 minutes, 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 95-52 first-round NCAA tournament win over Vermont, UConn freshman Ines Bettencourt, a 5-foot-9 guard, followed the Catamounts Paula Gonzalez down the court in transition and blocked her shot.
The UConn starters on the bench, including the Huskies normal shot-blockers in Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhasz, began to celebrate as they looked up to the video board, hoping the replay would be broadcast.
“We were like ‘We need to see that replay,’” Edwards said. “I think that we were all happy for Nesh because she’s a hard worker and when she makes big plays like that, she doesn’t really take much credit for it but we make it known that she did a good job.”
“It’s hard to come to UConn as a freshman,” Juhasz said. “... Seeing her getting more comfortable, learning from her guards and just listening. I think she’s been tremendous. Her growth has been tremendous.”
• UConn’s Edwards was named a third team All-American last week by the Associated Press and the U.S. Women’s Basketball Writers’ Association. Said Edwards, who is from Kingston, Ontario, Canada:
“It’s kind of funny, like, All-Canadian, All-American. It’s almost like dual citizenship in a way.”