Geno Auriemma ‘relishing’ UConn’s adjustment after pressure-filled era of March Madness dominance

CLEVELAND — Future generations will struggle to make it make sense, like trying to imagine Babe Ruth outhomering entire teams or the Roman Empire stretching from England to Egypt.

UConn won half (11) of the national championships from 1995 to 2016.

It has reached all but one of the past 15 Final Fours.

Geno Auriemma entered Friday’s national semifinal game against Iowa with a .883 career win percentage, the best of any college basketball coach in history.

He’s led the Huskies to six undefeated seasons.

He finished six other seasons with only one loss.

Geno Auriemma and UConn won half of the national championships between 1995 and 2016. USA TODAY Sports

All of this, despite inheriting a program that had one winning season in the 11 years prior to his hiring in 1985.

It has now been eight years since UConn’s women were the last team standing.

It has been seven years since its unbreakable 111-game win streak was snapped.

In the past three NCAA Tournaments, the Huskies have not been a No. 1 seed.

This year, they are a No. 3 seed, tied for the lowest the school has held since 1994.

Geno Auriemma hasn’t guided UConn to a national championship since 2016. Getty Images

UConn’s days of dictator-like dominance over college basketball is done.

And the adjustment has been easier than Auriemma, 70, could have ever imagined.

“During those moments where we were getting the majority of the attention — I remember one time somebody asked one of the coaches before the NCAA Tournament, ‘Do you have a preference who you want to win the NCAA Tournament? … And they said, ‘I don’t care, as long as it’s not Tennessee or Connecticut.’ — There was this point where people were dying for some other storyline to appear,” Auriemma said this week. “I like how all these other coaches are getting a ton of attention and a lot of pressure being put on them to have to win. They always thought I had it easy. Now they realize they wish they could go back to being anonymous. So I’m kind of relishing this.”

In the preseason, LSU was the top-ranked team, adding talent to its championship roster.

South Carolina had lost three games in two years. Iowa returned the country’s best player to a team which had just reached the national title game.

UConn was coming off a Sweet 16 loss, its first NCAA Tournament loss before the Final Four since 2007.

Paige Bueckers was back, but her ceiling was blurred after the former National Player of the Year missed the entire previous season with a torn ACL. 

Paige Bueckers missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Getty Images

The Huskies opened as title contenders, but appeared to slip from the sport’s top tier after losing five players to season-ending injuries and losing all five games against elite teams — all seeded third or higher in the NCAA Tournament — by double-digits.

Then, Bueckers put the team on her back.

Auriemma squeezed the most out of a six-player rotation.

It was a season that could be cherished like a championship, regardless of whether it ended with one.

Geno Auriemma, Paige Bueckers and UConn face Iowa on Friday for a spot in the national championship game. Getty Images

“If you would have talked to me in June this year, I would tell you, ‘Yeah, it was going to be us and South Carolina playing for the national championship,’ but then as things started to happen, I started to believe something different,” Auriemma said. “You have to be realistic, and we live in a world at UConn where the expectations are unrealistic. But you have to be realistic.

“This year was certainly one of the most challenging seasons of my career. And I have a lot of admiration and I’m really proud of my team … For them to be here right now in this spot is probably one of the most gratifying things that I’ve had to experience in all my 40 years at Connecticut. If you had asked me this a month ago, two months ago if we would be here, I would have said it would take a miracle.”

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