Team USA tops UConn women on a night they pay tribute to Bryant

Hartford — Geno Auriemma recalls the first time NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his young daughter Gianna were ever around the UConn women's basketball team, of which she aspired to be a part.

"The very first time, you got Gigi (Gianna's nickname) and her role models and people she looks up to and you have our players looking at her dad like, 'uhhhh,'" Auriemma, the UConn coach, said Monday night.

He also recalls a conversation he had with Bryant in Italian, as both were former residents of Italy.

What started as a impending celebration with the United States Olympic Team's arrival at the XL Center to take on the fourth-ranked UConn women — the U.S. won the game 79-64 behind 19 points from Sylvia Fowles — turned somber with the deaths of Bryant and 13-year-old Gianna in a helicopter accident Sunday in Calabasas, California.

Bryant was a friend of Auriemma's and visited Gampel Pavilion with Gianna on last year's Senior Day, which was combined with the retirement of Rebecca Lobo's No. 50.

"We were all together yesterday for dinner at coach's restaurant," said former UConn player Kalana Greene, a member of both the 2009 and 2010 national championship teams, which were honored prior to the game, explaining the emotions surrounding the death of the Bryants. "There were a lot of tears in that room, a lot of confusion. ... It made us just appreciate our time with one another."

"That hit everyone for sure in a sense that there's not a whole lot of people just out there putting the women's game on his back," former UConn All-American Renee Montgomery said of Bryant. "That was a heavy blow. ... I consider my teammates family. To be able to be around my teammates (when they learned of Bryant's death), it felt good."

UConn's coaches dressed in black for Monday's game and the Huskies left a seat open on their bench draped with Gianna Bryant's No. 2 jersey.

Megan Walker finished with 22 points and seven rebounds for UConn (18-1), which resumes its regular-season schedule Thursday against Cincinnati.

Crystal Dangerfield had 11 points, four assists and three steals, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Anna Makurat 10 points each for the Huskies, who trailed 7-0 early when Auriemma called a timeout and said by the look on his players' faces he thought they might get shut out.

After trailing 22-11 after the first quarter, however, UConn started hitting 3-pointers, seven in all in the game, three by Walker.

Makurat hit a 3, followed by two from Walker to pull the Huskies within 27-26 and a smooth backdoor cut by Evelyn Adebayo gave the Huskies a 28-27 lead. The half ended in a 31-all tie.

UConn took a 56-54 lead in the fourth quarter on a three-point play by Christyn Williams, but that was before the one-woman wrecking crew of Kelsey Plum struck for eight straight points for a 62-56 lead the American team would not relinquish.

Former UConn greats Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi and Katie Lou Samuelson were on the U.S. roster, although Taurasi did not play due to back soreness.

With the addition of UConn bringing back its 2009 and 2010 championship teams, representing the sixth and seventh national championships in the all-time leading 11-title history of the program, there was enough talent in the room for three Olympic teams, maybe more.

Players from the reunion teams included former All-Americans Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery, in addition to a number of crowd favorites which included eastern Connecticut locals Heather Buck and Jacquie Fernandes.

Greene, among several members of the reunion teams to speak during halftime, including Moore — a four-time All-American at UConn who is sitting out the upcoming WNBA season — expressed what it meant for her teammates to see each other after a decade apart.

"I can't speak for other players, but we do love each other," Greene said. "This is a really unique situation. We fought like sisters. We literally fought like sisters. But I'm happy to see these guys. It's beautiful, man."

"I'm proud of the fact so many of them are UConn alums," Auriemma said of the U.S. team, which he coached to a gold medal in the previous two Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro. "Our program is very proud of that. ... We tied at halftime; it was half of a win. In two weeks (since falling to Baylor), we made a lot of progress. We're still not there yet. The only way we can get better in these games is to keep playing in these games."

The U.S., being coached on this tour by Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve while head coach Dawn Staley is otherwise occupied coaching the top-ranked team in the nation in South Carolina, continues its exhibition tour Sunday at Louisville.

The American team will then play in its Olympic Qualifying Tournament Feb. 6-9 in Serbia. The Olympics are scheduled for July 24-Aug. 9 in Tokyo.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

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