In the 31 years of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships, only two teams have managed to successfully defend their championship title, first winning three straight titles and then later winning back-to-back championships.
Under Pat Summitt, Tennessee won three consecutive titles from 1996 to 1998 and won championships in 2007 and again in 2008. Geno Auriemma led the Huskies to three straight titles from 2002 to 2004 and won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
With the core of UConn’s 2013 championship team returning this season to seek a record ninth NCAA women’s title, the Huskies’ Hall of Fame coach is aware of the challenge his team faces, as the 2013-2014 season begins on Nov. 9 against Hartford at the XL Center. The Huskies are ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls.
“The year after you win a national championship and you have everybody back is really hard. People think it’s easy,” Auriemma says. “Two things can happen: one, you think it’s going to happen again easily because you don’t remember how hard it was; or, you put the kind of pressures on yourself that are unnecessary, thinking you’ve got to be a national championship team every day from Oct. 15 to March. Then the outside world is going to judge you differently. How do you deal with that? I think that’s probably a good question that the players are going to find as the season goes on.”
Part of the answer to the question may lie in the shared experience among the core of this year’s Husky squad – Stefanie Dolson ’14 (CLAS), Bria Hartley ’14 (CLAS), Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis ’15 (CLAS), and Breanna Stewart ’16 (CLAS) – along with sophomores Morgan Tuck ’16 (CLAS) and Moriah Jefferson ’16 (CLAS). The six teammates have compiled 21 gold medals as part of their participation in USA Basketball, competing among the nation’s best players for a place on national teams and then going up against the best players in the world, having to prove themselves time and again.
Thirty student-athletes coached by Auriemma have participated in USA Basketball to date, starting with the first Husky star, All-American Kerry Bascom ’91 (CLAS), often from their days in youth basketball. Perhaps the best indication of the strong link between success in both USA Basketball and the Huskies is the USA Women’s National Team, coached by Auriemma that won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. Its members included veteran USA Basketball players Sue Bird ’02 (CLAS), Swin Cash ’02 (CLAS), Tina Charles ’10 (CLAS), Asjha Jones ’02 (BUS), Maya Moore ’11 (CLAS), and Diana Taurasi ’05 (CLAS).
Carol Callan, women’s national team director for USA Basketball, says Huskies who have participated on national teams share many characteristics that allow them to continually succeed, as they move from youth teams through high school and college to the highest levels of international competition, including the FIBA World Championships, Pan American Games, and the World University Games.
“First, they’re really talented, and that begins when they’re in high school. Breanna Stewart played on five [USA] teams before stepping onto the UConn campus,” Callan says. “They also have to have a desire to be coached, and that’s what I think UConn players excel in; they know they’re good but they want to get better. Players that play for us have to be responsible – do what their trainers tell them to take care of themselves and do their schoolwork. It’s also the attitude of the coaches, that they are encouraged by their coaches to play for USA Basketball. The players also have a love of competition. Our practices and scrimmages can be the most competitive games that players will experience.”
Auriemma says the experience of playing USA Basketball is unique for young players, who may begin as young as Stewart did at age 14, having to compete in varied circumstances against different opponents and with new teammates. The young athletes are often “out of their comfort level” and must regain their confidence as they face adversity, calling upon their past experiences.
Following an inconsistent regular season of play as she adjusted to the college game as a freshman, Stewart last year led the Huskies to their eighth NCAA title as the Most Outstanding Performer in the Final Four. She has won five gold medals since 2009 as part of six USA Basketball teams.
“Playing USA Basketball has given me a lot of confidence,” says Stewart, who was part of the USA squad that won the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship last summer and included Tuck and Jefferson. “I was always one of the youngest, just looking up to the older players and realizing [I was] there for a reason. Whenever you do lose your confidence at some point in the season, you go back to that – looking at the things you’ve done.”
Jefferson was selected for the U18 and U19 teams after twice failing to make the cut for a national team, causing her to think she might not be good enough to play at a higher level.
“It questions your confidence,” Jefferson says, noting how much she learns from the higher level of competition. “You have to be good on every possession; if you’re not, there is somebody else right there ready to beat you. It was so much more physical. You had to learn to keep the ball; you had to be able to knock players off of you and knock down shots. I think [last summer] helped me a lot, especially for this season.”
Dolson, Mosqueda-Lewis, Hartley, and Stewart were invited to participate in the 2013 USA Basketball National Team Training Camp in early October. This is the first step to selecting the 2014 USA World Championship team that could eventually lead to becoming a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, which will be coached by Auriemma. Early success with USA Basketball does not necessarily translate into continued success, however. Auriemma says he takes pride in how many of his student-athletes demonstrated the ability to rise within USA Basketball.
“Whether you are afforded the opportunity to go forward depends a lot on how you handle yourself at a young age,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that they were all asked to play at that age and are still being asked to play, which means that whatever they are doing, they’re doing a great job of it as people and as players. The experience you get, you can’t get anywhere else.”
Most of this year’s Husky squad already has the experience no other team has: winning a national championship. Auriemma has said many times that having an experienced All-American on the roster can help a team win a title; this year, he has three previous All-Americans – Dolson, Mosqueda-Lewis, and Hartley – and with this week’s announcement by the Associated Press of its preseason list, a fourth in Stewart.
“When I watch them practice out here, that’s not the first thing that comes to mind,” Auriemma says with a smile that alludes to the flaws he always finds in his team’s performance and his ongoing pursuit of perfection. “When we’re good, we’re good; when we’re not, we’re something less than that. Our goal is to get to the point where we’re good more often. So far, we’ve had a lot of good days, and that’s a good sign. It’s not like we’re basing this on projections or if people live up to their potential. They’ve done it. Do they have it in them to play at that level? Absolutely, because they have; now it’s a matter of playing 30-something games and proving it.”