Auriemma admires how this UConn team has forged its own identity

Geno Auriemma was asked when, for certain, he knew this would be the UConn women's basketball team which had the capability to head to its 10th straight Final Four.

“Last night about 9 o'clock,” he said to laughter during a teleconference Tuesday morning, referring to the Huskies' Bridgeport Regional championship over Oregon.

But that's the thing. As Auriemma pointed out after Monday's 90-52 victory, which gave UConn a spot in Friday's national semifinal against Mississippi State in Dallas (10 p.m., ESPN), it's not a best-of-seven series the Huskies get to play to get to the Final Four each year. They have to win them all. Every time.

They've won 111 straight games and four consecutive national championships, both unprecedented in Division I women's basketball history. They've won 28 straight NCAA tournament games, dating back to an overtime loss to Notre Dame in the 2012 national semifinals in Denver.

The next most consecutive Final Fours in the women's game was five, established by UConn (2000-04), LSU (2004-08), Notre Dame (2011-15) and Stanford (2008-12).

“It's such a feat to accomplish in so many ways,” Auriemma said. “It only takes one loss. So in all those 10 years, all it took was one loss at the wrong time during March and you're out. For us to have gone 10 months of March in a row and not having lost a game through a whole different cast of characters over all that time, that's pretty darned good. That's probably, more than anything, what really hits home for me.”

The last time UConn failed to advance to the Final Four came in 2007, precipitated by a 73-50 loss to LSU in the regional final in Fresno, Calif.

Since then, there have been Final Fours in Tampa, St. Louis, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Denver, New Orleans, Nashville and then back to Tampa and Indianapolis. Now UConn heads to Dallas, joining Mississippi State, Stanford and South Carolina.

The Huskies have won six of the nine previous titles, 11 – yes, an NCAA record – in all.

Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, in Tuesday's Final Four conference call, said the only way to put it is to call UConn “a machine.”

He said that over last summer he had an opportunity to spend time with Auriemma and ask him questions.

“Kind of like being around somebody that's 100,” Schaefer said with a laugh. “If you're 100 years old, I want to know what you're eating for breakfast. I want to know what time you're eating breakfast, what you're eating for lunch. … They're a well-oiled machine. They have tremendous chemistry.”

Auriemma said there was a time in the first few weeks of practice where he was sure UConn wasn't going to be very good.

“With two minutes left in the Florida State game, the opening game of the season, I was convinced, 'We got major problems,'” Auriemma said. “'This team is going to really learn a huge lesson that they haven't had to learn up until now and it's going to hit 'em tonight and we'll be better off for it.'”

Yet somehow this team, without the top three picks in last year's WNBA Draft, became a team which proved itself capable to carry UConn's mantle of greatness.

Auriemma said that graduated senior Breanna Stewart and her quest to win four straight titles, something no college women's basketball player had ever accomplished, became of the theme of the last four seasons.

Now, this team has found its own identity.

“That's a big step to go from riding in the backseat on a trip you're going to, to all of a sudden you're in charge of driving the bus and you're responsible for getting us there,” Auriemma said. “A lot of times people have to learn to lose to learn how to win. For them just to step in right where the other team left off and take immediate ownership of it, that says a lot about who they are.”

“… Generally, you have to suffer a little bit and lose a little bit to have that realization hit home. But for these kids, they showed a maturity that I didn't know if they had or not.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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