DALLAS — Geno Auriemma is a confident man. And with 11 national championships under his belt, why shouldn’t he be?
But heading into this season, even the supremely self-assured Connecticut women’s basketball coach had his doubts that his Huskies would end up playing in the program’s 10th consecutive Final Four and 18th overall.
“You know, there was a time during the first two weeks of practice that I knew we weren’t going to be very good,” he said. “With two minutes left in the Florida State game — the opening game of the season — I was convinced we had major problems, that this team is going to really learn a huge lesson that they hadn’t had to learn up until now, and it’s going to hit them tonight.”
But it didn’t hit the Huskies that night. Nor the next, nor any other.
And now here they are, undefeated again, the national No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament again, and, yes, back in the Final Four. Again.
The Huskies continue their run toward a fifth straight national title Friday night at American Airlines Center in a semifinal matchup against Mississippi State, a team they obliterated, 98-38, in last year’s tournament.
The names are different this time. Instead of All-Americans Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, Connecticut now is powered by All-Americans Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams, a transition that was at the root of Auriemma’s apprehension.
But the results have been the same. A 36-0 record, with a 33.2-point average margin of victory, has run the Huskies’ record winning streak to a staggering 111 games. There have been 11 wins over nationally ranked opponents and four tournament victories by an average of 36 points.
“I know the names have changed with some of them,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “But this team is no different. Great chemistry. Great defensive team. Great offensive chemistry. Great skill sets. And they are fast.
“That is the piece that hopefully with us won’t be new this year. We understand going in, we’d better run the floor or they’ll run us out of the gym in a hurry again.”
Schaefer has made sure his team, led by junior guards Victoria Vivians and Morgan William, whose 41 points carried the Bulldogs (33-4) past top-seeded Baylor in the Oklahoma City Region final, hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned from that 60-point blowout of a year ago.
“We saw that film a lot,” said Vivians, who averages a team-high 16.8 points per game. “Even walking into the weight room — our strength coach put ‘60’ on the window. We see it every day. It didn’t leave our heads at all. To be back in this position means a lot.”
This Final Four means a lot to the Huskies not only because it has become something of a Connecticut birthright but because no one — including the team’s leaders — seemed convinced that this group had what it takes to carry on the legacy.
“I think during the beginning of the season, our toughest moments were in practice, in understanding what we needed to do to be successful,” junior guard Kia Nurse said. “Because there was this unknown from a lot of people. With us, our unknown was: How do we step into these roles we haven’t done before? We had a transition to make.”
That transition made Auriemma — named The Associated Press coach of the year Thursday — more than a little bit uneasy, especially when he realized during early practices that team leaders such as Samuelson and Collier didn’t seem to have the intense killer instinct of his departed stars.
That, Auriemma said, hasn’t changed, and it still worries him, even as the wins pile up.
“Little by little, they started to respond to whatever circumstances were in front of them,” he said. “But they’ve never changed. They haven’t become what I hoped they would become, like edgy, just walk out there and grab you by the throat and choke you, like some teams that I’ve had.
“They just walk out like, ‘Yeah, we’re probably going to win, so let’s just play. I’m sure something bad will happen during the game, but it’s OK, we’ll fix it.’ They just have this attitude like everything will be fine, don’t worry about it. Yet they keep winning.”