By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — It only seems like there can’t be a NCAA tournament Sweet 16 without the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
The top-seeded Huskies made it 20 consecutive trips to the regional semifinals Monday night with their 77-44 win over No. 8 Vanderbilt in a NCAA Bridgeport Regional second-round game at Gampel Pavilion. UConn (31-4) will take on No. 4 Maryland at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport Saturday.
“One of the things we’re most proud of here at Connecticut is that we were able to do it for a long period of time,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “The consistency of our program, day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out, is something that we can take great pride in. I don’t know who else has done it 20 years in a row but it’s really hard to do and sometimes we make it look easy. It’s hard to do.”
Tennessee qualified for the first 27 Sweet 16s (1982-2008) before being eliminated by Ball State in the first of the 2009 tourney. The Huskies’ streak is the second longest all-time. Stanford has the second-longest active streak and the Cardinal will try to make it six in a row Tuesday night when they play host to Michigan at Maples Pavilion.
“It’s something that’s incredible,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said.
So while it seems the Huskies are always in the Sweet 16, there was actually a time their Hall of Fame coach thought they would never get there.
Auriemma was hired by UConn in 1985 and was 43-39 in his first three years. The Huskies then reached the NCAA tournament for the first time as the Big East champion in 1989 and lost to La Salle in the first round. They received an at-large bid and a first-round bye in 1990 but lost to Clemson when Kerry Bascom’s 3-point try for the win at the buzzer hit the front rim.
“It’s 1988-89 and we’re hoping to get into the NCAA tournament,” Auriemma said. “We get in and we lose. The next year we get in and we lose. Then finally it’s like, ‘Are we ever going to win a game? Are we ever going to get to the regionals? Are we ever going to take the next step that some programs don’t take?’ “
In 1991, UConn clinched its third straight NCAA tournament by winning the Big East title and was given a No. 3-seed and a first-round bye before hosting Toledo on March 16 at Gampel Pavilion with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.
The Huskies led by as many as 11 in the first half but settled for a 34-34 tie at halftime. The Rockets went ahead 53-45 with 14:02 to go but UConn regained its footing and a Laura Lishness basket made it 73-65 with 4:45 left. Toledo, though, wasn’t done and the Mid-American Conference champions took a 78-77 edge on two Kris Finefrock free throws with 56 seconds remaining. A Bascom foul shot tied it but Jane Roman connected on both ends of a one-and-one to put the Rockets back in front. UConn responded by getting the ball inside to Bascom and her three-point play, the last of her school record 39 points, made it 81-80 UConn with 19 seconds to go.
Toledo had two shots to win and on the second miss UConn’s Wendy Davis was called for a foul by referee Simmie Lavender as the buzzer sounded. With no television replay available, Lavender and fellow referee Dee Kantner went to the scorer’s table to decide whether Toledo would shoot a one-and-one for the win or the game was over.
The players, coaches, and 4,623 anxious fans waited for several minutes.
“It was a long time. It was a long time waiting to see the officials decide whether if it was a foul or not a foul,” Auriemma said. “I guess some things never change. There’s still a lot of debating among officials about what was this and what was that.
“That night I think every emotion that could go through me went through me. When Dee finally waved the game off and said that’s it, it’s over, you won, you’re going to the regionals, I don’t know that if in coaching … That was the first big, big moment for me. That was the first moment I could say, ‘I’ve never felt anything like that before.’ “
UConn went on to the regionals at the Palestra in Philadelphia and beat North Carolina State and Clemson to reach the Final Four. Bascom became the program’s first All-American.
Now it all seems commonplace.
But there’s nothing like the first time.
“That night changed everything at Connecticut,” Auriemma said. “That night here against Toledo changed Connecticut basketball forever. That’s the night that we became the kind of program that can go to the Final Four. I’ll never forget that night for as long as I live.”