How UConn women made Geno Auriemma believe in Final Four run

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PORTLAND, Ore. — After barely escaping an ugly defensive battle against Duke in the Sweet 16, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma made peace with the possible reality that the Huskies were running on empty.

He knew No. 3 seed UConn was staring down a juggernaut in No. 1 USC, a battle-tested squad led by veteran transfers and headlined by freshman phenom JuJu Watkins. Auriemma looked at his injury-riddled roster, his four freshman contributors, his star Paige Bueckers averaging nearly 39 minutes in the NCAA Tournament, and he couldn’t imagine the Trojans felt intimidated.

“I actually would have been okay if they ran out of gas today and there was nothing left,” Auriemma said, only half joking. “It would’ve been like, ‘Hey listen, we did about as much as we could do. We just didn’t have anything left.’

“Sometimes that happens, and you’re okay with it, but somehow they found it, and we’re playing again next week.”

But after Monday’s 80-73 win, excitement will now be able to hit the legendary Huskies’ coach at some point after the team’s plane touches down in Cleveland to begin practice for the Final Four. In the aftermath of his 23rd career win in the Elite Eight on Monday night, soaked through to his underwear after getting doused by water bottles in the postgame celebration, all Auriemma could muster was disbelief.

“It’s a miracle, honest to God, man. I can’t believe that this is actually happening” Auriemma said, stuttering in search of language to articulate a moment that still felt impossible. “If you asked me three weeks ago what I was doing on April 6, I’d have said I was going to Florida to play a couple days of golf and then relax a little bit. So, we’re going to Cleveland instead.”

“Never lost hope”

There has been no program more inevitable in the history of the NCAA Tournament than UConn. Eleven national championships, 23 Final Fours and 30 consecutive Sweet 16 appearances are all records across both men’s and women’s basketball. But that experience also means Auriemma knows a winning team when he sees it, and he wasn’t sure he had one for most of the 2023-24 season.

Auriemma was far from the only one who wavered in his expectations for this season. Bueckers said the loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 27 “took a piece of my soul,” especially because of the star-studded roster of UConn alumni in attendance to celebrate the 2003-04 and 2013-14 national title teams. The humiliation of a defeat at Gampel Pavilion in front of legends like Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi was difficult for Bueckers to shake.

“I remember the couple games after that were pretty rough for me honestly, just because you want to play the best on the biggest stage, in the biggest moments,” Bueckers said. “I was upset for a couple games after that, but it was just about locking back in and realizing the season’s far from over … There was never a time where we gave up, but times when you questioned how we were going to do it and how deep we were going to have to dig to get it done.”

It was a low that followed so many others, a rock bottom that Bueckers with the Huskies,  had hit twice before. First at the Cayman Islands Classic, where the Huskies suffered their second loss of the season, to UCLA, two days after star guard Azzi Fudd tore her right ACL and meniscus during practice.

Aubrey Griffin’s left ACL tear against Creighton on Jan. 3 hit the team just as hard, rattling even Bueckers’ superstar confidence in UConn’s postseason potential.

“We never lost hope, but there were some dark times,” she said. “This year was supposed to be our year where we were fully healthy and ready to go, and then the Caymans happen. Then Aubrey’s injury was just devastating … but I think the thing that really got us here was our confidence belief in ourselves.”

Senior Nika Muhl, too, grappled with the intense disappointment when the final buzzer sounded against the Fighting Irish. Two months ago, in the aftermath of that crushing loss, the Final Four couldn’t have felt further away. The sting is far duller for Muhl in hindsight though, now with a Final Four hat perched on top of her sleek ponytail.

“I felt like a part of me died that game, but I feel like that’s what’s supposed to happen,” Muhl said. “If you’re passionate about the game and you care about the game, if you care about your team, you’re supposed to feel like that after the game. It took me like two or three weeks to mentally get right, but it pays off. You see us now. We don’t want games like that to happen, but they are supposed to happen. They’re part of the process and the journey.”

“They’re making me believe in them”

UConn’s 80-73 win over top-seeded USC was a performance filled with improbabilities. Muhl, the anchor of the Huskies’ defensive effort, played for more than 13 minutes with four fouls. Freshman Qadence Samuels came off the bench for the first time since the opening round against Jackson State and drained a desperately-needed 3-pointer that recalibrated the first-quarter momentum. Redshirt freshman Ice Brady was UConn’s most efficient scorer going 3-for-4, her eight points headlined by a swished corner three in the final seconds of the third quarter.

But the root of the Huskies’ belief is in Bueckers, the power she seems to draw from every camera lens that latches onto her as she commands the biggest stages with apparent ease. Auriemma describes it as light, something he says only the greatest players possess.

“We all know people that live in darkness … They just suck the life out of the room. She’s the opposite. She shines light on everywhere she goes,” he said. “Players like her, they live for these games. This is what they dream of when they go to college and play basketball, and if their dream is taken away from them, it’s like they’re half a person … and some people don’t let that happen. Paige is one of those people.”

Slowly but surely, UConn has made a believer out of its head coach — with a bit of help from his staff. Auriemma compared this year’s team to the 1996 squad that starred now-assistant coach Jamelle Elliott, remembering the feeling of watching her run out of steam in the Final Four against Tennessee. But Elliott, who lived that tournament heartbreak firsthand, saw something more in the 2024 Huskies.

On Friday, UConn will face arguably its biggest challenge yet against No. 1 seed Iowa at the Final Four in Cleveland. Powered by the ever-growing legend that is Caitlin Clark, the Hawkeyes’ momentum is at an all-time high after dethroning reigning national champion LSU to win the Albany 2 regional. But the Huskies have already accomplished what was once unthinkable, so what’s a little more faith?

“Jamelle kept saying and (assistant coach) Tonya (Cardoza) kept saying that it was possible. Jamelle just kept saying, ‘Let’s ride the wave and when it crashes, it crashes,’”

Auriemma said. “To me it was like, there’s no way. There’s no nothing. We’re hanging on for dear life … I don’t know. They believe in themselves, and they’re making me believe in them even more.”

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