Geno’s Huskies Leave American Conference in Perfect Fashion

The victorious Huskies pose after winning their seventh straight AAC tournament championship. (Stephen Slade / UConn Athletic Department)

Posting unbeaten records is not unusual for Geno Auriemma’s Huskies, who have completed six unbeaten seasons (1994-95, 2001-02, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2013-14, 2015-16) on the way to winning 11 NCAA titles. While competing in the Big East between 1989 and 2012, the Huskies posted nine unbeaten conference seasons.

This season the women’s basketball team’s only losses were to No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Baylor, but fans were wringing their hands with concern. However led by 26 points from junior forward Megan Walker, the conference’s Player of the Year and AAC Championship Most Outstanding Player, and 22 points from Christyn Williams, UConn put an exclamation point on seven years of domination in the American Athletic Conference with an 87-53 win over Cincinnati at Mohegan Sun Arena on Monday.

The No. 5 ranked Huskies, who return to the Big East next season, will move on to the 2020 NCAA tournament after completing a record of 139-0 in both regular season and tournament games since joining the American Athletic Conference in 2013. UConn posted seven seasons in the American with a regular season record of 118-0. The record for consecutive conference wins including postseason games is held by Texas of the Southwest Conference, which won 143 straight games from Dec. 9, 1981 to Feb. 23, 1990, according to the NCAA Record Book. Texas also has the record of most consecutive regular season conference wins with 124 during that same time period.

“I know some people are devastated we’re not the favorite going in [to the NCAA tournament],” Auriemma said after the game. “I find it kind of humorous, to be honest with you. A horrible year at Connecticut is 29-3 and winning the conference championship and being ranked fifth in the country. It’s a rebuilding year. Look around the country. Rebuilding years at other places means you don’t even make the tournament. I think [we need] some perspective; when we have the best team in the country, I’m the first guy to tell you…When we don’t, I tell you. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are where we are.”

Walker and Williams said the team did not feel pressured to leave the AAC with an unblemished record.
“It’s more of a pride thing,” Walker said. “We wanted to get it done for our coach and the people who came before us. It’s understood.”

Added Williams, “When you come here, this is one of the goals you have; to win your conference. We’ve won seven. That was definitely the goal to finish out this conference moving forward.”

South Florida head coach Jose Fernandez noted the consistency of UConn’s domination in league play, also recalling their time together in the Big East before the formation of the American.

“How many Big East games did they lose?” he said after the Huskies defeated the Bulls 79-38 on Sunday to advance to the championship game. “They went three undefeated seasons where they didn’t lose for 120 straight games as well [2008-2011] when we were in the best league in the country. Nine teams went to the NCAA tournament and another five went to the NIT; 14 of the 16 teams went to post-season. So, hat’s off to them.”

Following Temple’s quarterfinal loss to the Huskies on Saturday, head coach Tonya Cardoza, who spent 14 years as a UConn assistant, looked to the future, noting the Huskies’s Big East schedule will have fewer non-conference game opportunities, but she looks forward to continuing to play UConn.

“We want our players to play against the very best and compete against the very best. Just because we aren’t playing them in conference in the next couple years, I would definitely like to do that,” she said. “I am sure (Geno) would do that. I want my players to come back to Storrs and the XL Center. It is a great experience for them. We have to be ready for it. “Obviously, I am part of the UConn family. The only team I want to beat UConn is Temple. If we cannot beat them, then I do not want them to lose. Now that they are leaving the conference, it is wide-open. If we do what we are supposed to –get in the gym and work hard– we can be the new UConn of the American.”

Mel Greenberg, who pioneered national coverage of women’s basketball while at the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 40 years, including the original Top 25 women’s college poll, views UConn’s accomplishments through a historic perspective. He is known as “The Guru” of women’s basketball.

“Geno’s first ranking was in February 1990. He started at the bottom and Tennessee was a Top 5/Top 10 program. The way the Huskies in that span leaves the Lady Vols and a slew of others in the dust is mind-boggling,” said Greenberg, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and writes the “Womhoops Guru” blog, tracking the teams and rankings. “He’s got 112 more number one rankings than Tennessee. The reason UConn has made that run is what everyone says of them – they never take a play off. Many nights the work ethic overcame injuries and illness. But coming in they had already virtually dominated a more prominent old Big East, even having taken hits when others became good [such as Rutgers and Notre Dame].”

Pat Eaton-Robb, longtime Associated Press reporter who covers UConn sports, notes that Auriemma’s team has compiled several winning streaks, making it easy for fans and media to lose perspective on those accomplishments.

“You put all of this in your mind and you realize you’re covering a very special thing and it’s not going to come around again because this team has literally raised the level of women’s basketball,” he said. “They have taken it from something that nobody watched to something that little girls aspire to. Kobe Bryant’s daughter aspired to play for UConn. There are thousands of girls who play basketball because they watch the excellence that is UConn. That’s the perspective you have to keep in mind when you’re watching this team.”

Debbie Baer Fiske, the point guard on the Huskies’ first Big East championship team in 1989 and the 1991 Final Four squad, has provided her perspective on the team’s play since 2012 as analyst on the radio broadcasts on the UConn Sports Network from Learfield IMG College.

“People take for granted how hard it is to go unbeaten. Night in and night out, to win–regardless of competition–is tough to do,” she said. “Players have many things going on in their lives during a hoop season–stresses of college life, family, body aches and pains, desire to work hard no matter who the opponent, etc. Players and teams change and yet Geno and the coaching staff have found ways to motivate the kids, maintain strong recruiting and not be satisfied with anything less. To have all players focused and performing to get wins over the course of that time, is amazing. Just ask Notre Dame—they have a down year—they miss the NCAA Tournament. UConn has a so called ‘Down Year’ they lose three games to the top three teams in the country. UConn sets the bar high.”

As Monday’s postgame press conference was ending, Auriemma was asked if his team has changed in any way during its seven years in the American Athletic Conference in order to maintain its consistent winning ways.

“Being in a new conference we didn’t really know what to expect from all the teams that were going to be in the league,” he said. “We just try to approach every game the same way. Show up every day at practice and get ourselves prepared. I think the obvious factor is our players are really, really good. When you think about it. You’re not going to win these games, you’re not going win these championships if you don’t have really good players. We’ve managed to do that the whole time we’ve been in the league. It’s not like it’s the first time that it started happening. We were doing this 15-20 years ago before the American Conference was thought about. It’s just part of who were are. We don’t expect to win every game. We’re not arrogant thinking that we deserve to win every game. We just prepare to win every game and try to be consistent and treat every team with the respect they deserve. Whether we’re playing Cincinnati or whether we’re playing Baylor. It doesn’t matter; we’re going to prepare the exact same way. We don’t change anything for any team. I think that’s the biggest consistency is our approach day in and day out.”