It is not unusual for past and present members of the women’s basketball team to gather at the XL Center in Hartford. Former Husky student-athletes are often there to watch their successors play under the watchful eye of Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma.
Last weekend’s meeting of UConn past and present was different, however. The 2010 NCAA champions sat in the stands on Friday night watching as their teammate Maya Moore joined a group of former Husky stars help the USA Women’s Basketball Team win the first of two exhibition games against two of the world’s best teams.
Moore played in two games alongside former Huskies Renee Montgomery, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi, and Asjha Jones, while hearing a familiar voice from the sidelines – USA head coach Auriemma.
In playing exhibitions against the national teams from Australia and Spain, USA Basketball took the first steps toward selecting the 12 players who will make up the American squad that will compete in the 2012 Olympics in London. Of the 18 players currently in the U.S. pool who are competing to make the final team roster, seven are from UConn, including two former Huskies who won’t join the team until after the WNBA finals – Sue Bird and Swin Cash of the Seattle Storm. The USA Basketball Selection Committee invites players to try out for the team and makes the final selection of the roster.
“One of the things we explained to the players today is that this is a three-year program,” Auriemma said. “There are players in the locker room today that weren’t on the Olympic team last time. There will probably be players in a couple of years trying to make the Olympic team that aren’t in the locker room today. It’s a program and you have to navigate that program. So if you make the team this year or not, you’re part of the deal. It’s your job to make [the team].”
Three players from UConn combined to score 67 points during the two exhibition games this past weekend, with Moore leading the team with 16 points in the 89-56 win against Australia on Friday and Charles leading the team with 17 points in the 85-69 victory over Spain on Sunday.
Moore, the only current student-athlete on the USA squad, has quickly made an impression on the international basketball community.
“She’s a new age Tamika Catchings,” said Carrie Graf, coach of the Australian team, in a reference to the 2000 National Player of the Year from Tennessee and 2008 Olympian who is also on the current USA Team. “She plays with great persistence. She’s just a flat-out talent.”
Taurasi saw limited action after arriving in Hartford an hour before Friday’s game following the conclusion of her WNBA schedule, but her presence drew loud fan reaction and raised the level of the American squad, according to Auriemma.
“There’s a certain level of confidence when she’s on the floor or when she’s on the bench,” he said. “There’s a difference.”
The four-time WNBA All-Star and Olympian also is watching the progress of Moore, the USA Team’s youngest member.
“She shows flashes of how good she’s going to be,” said Taurasi, who has been called the world’s best basketball player for her All-Star performances both in the WNBA and European League. “She’s already at the point where she’s better than 99 percent of the players in the world – and I’ve seen everyone. She can be the best.”
The former Huskies now reunited with Auriemma said they appreciate the opportunity to be coached again by their former mentor.
“Once I graduated, I thought that was it,” said Jones, a 2002 graduate who plays for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. “It’s great being around him again. I think I’m a lot more at ease [with him now]. He’s kind of relaxed a lot.”
Her Sun teammate, Montgomery, said she is also enjoying the chance to play for Auriemma and with other former Huskies, against whom she plays in the WNBA.
“When I left college, I didn’t think I’d ever get the opportunity to play for him again. It’s just a great feeling,” said the second-year WNBA player. “You play against [the other former Husky players in the WNBA] night in and night out. It’s nice when they’re suited up and we have the same uniform on.”
National teams must qualify for the Olympics by winning in the FIBA World Championships or during Olympic Qualifying Tournaments over the next two years, beginning with this month’s 2010 FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic from Sept. 23-Oct. 2. The 2010 gold medal winner will automatically qualify for the Olympics. There are two other opportunities to qualify, first in the 2011 FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament and then in 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Sites and dates for those tournaments are yet to be determined.
The USA Team left Monday morning for Europe, where they will continue to train and play two more exhibition games against international teams, all while awaiting the arrival of Bird, Cash, and Angel McCoughtry of the Atlanta Dream after the WNBA championships.
Meanwhile, Auriemma said he was satisfied the USA Team is making good progress as a unit.
“The object of these two games [in Hartford] was for us to get a feel for our team, put ourselves in a competitive situation against two of the world’s best teams, and try to work on some things at the same time,” he said. “It gave us a little bit clearer picture of some of the decisions the committee will have to make. Everything we wanted to accomplish, we got accomplished.
“This group has a pretty good sense of who they are and they’re willing to do whatever I ask them to do,” he added. “I could put any starting lineup out there. They’re going to do what they’re asked to do. They’re smart. They just blend easily because they like each other.
The former Huskies are among the most accomplished basketball players in the world. Bird is among just four American women to have won an NCAA championship, a WNBA title, and an Olympic and World Championship gold medal. Former Husky Kara Wolters, now a radio analyst for UConn games, was the first UConn player to reach that level.
Cash and Taurasi are among three players (Ruth Riley is the third) to have each won an NCAA, WNBA, and Olympic gold medal. Jones helped the Huskies win two NCAA championships and is a two-time WNBA All-Star.
Teammates Charles and Montgomery won the 2009 NCAA championship that sent the Huskies on the way to consecutive unbeaten seasons while playing with Moore. Montgomery was named to the 2009 WNBA All-Rookie Team as a member of the Connecticut Sun, where she was joined in 2010 by Charles, who was named the 2010 WNBA Rookie of the Year.