By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — For 20 years, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team has made something pretty hard look pretty easy.
The third-ranked Huskies can clinch their 20th straight 20-win season Saturday with a win over Big East opponent St. John’s at Carnesecca Arena in Jamaica, N.Y. (2 p.m., SNY).
“There was a time that 20 wins was a great season,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Those days are long gone with an expanded regular season schedule, conference tournaments, and expanded national tournaments.
Over the past 19 seasons, UConn has won at least 25 games. In 17 of the 19 seasons, the Huskies reached 30 wins with the only misses coming in 1999 (29-5) and 2005 (25-8).
But that doesn’t mean success is automatic. For example, it took UConn four years to get back to the NCAA Final Four after making its first appearance in 1991.
“The hardest thing to do for teams that just learn how to win is keep winning,” Auriemma said.
St. John’s is finding that out this season.
A year ago, the Red Storm used a late-season surge that included a win at Gampel Pavilion that ended the Huskies’ NCAA record 99-game home winning streak to earn the No. 2 seed for the Big East tournament. They reached the tourney semifinals for the first time since 1988. They were then given a No. 3 seed in NCAA Fresno (Calif.) Regional and defeated Creighton and Oklahoma to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. They finished 24-10 after a loss to Duke.
During the offseason coach Kim Barnes Arico left for Michigan and top assistant Joe Tartamella was promoted. With four starters returning, St. John’s was a consensus Top 15-20 team. But a loss to Texas to begin the season began a bit of a roller coaster ride. A season-ending knee injury to Eugeneia McPherson in November hurt and it lost four of its next five games. It’s one thing to lose to Duke and UCLA, though. It’s another to lose by 17 at Boston University and at Quinnipiac of the perennially weak Northeast Conference.
The Red Storm (10-9 overall, 4-3 Big East) ended a three-game losing streak Wednesday night as they used a 30-4 run to the start the second half to erase a nine-point deficit en route to a 65-51 victory over Providence.
St. John’s RPI to start the week was 61, so it needs to win a bunch of games down the stretch to take advantage of it hosting NCAA tournament first- and second-round games next month.
Another upset of UConn would go a long way in helping that cause. However, the Red Storm was known as the Express the last time they beat the Huskies at Carnesecca Arena/Alumni Hall on Jan. 6, 1993.
“Losing McPherson took one of their best shooters out of the lineup,” Auriemma said. “But every game seems to be a dogfight with them. They keep the scores low and play good defense. Their point guard (Nadirah McKenith) is as good a point guard as there is in the league with the ball in her hands and Shenneika Smith is a good player.”
UConn (19-1, 6-1) has been getting great play in recent games from sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and junior Stefanie Dolson.
Actually, Auriemma has no complaints about his entire starting lineup. But he does want to see more from his bench.
“I was hoping that the young guys would develop quickly,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you see glimpses of it. Then it’s gone. What have to do is get more consistency out of those guys. They don’t have to be great, but they do have to produce.”
UConn has won seven straight since its loss to Notre Dame Jan. 5. For St. John’s to pull an upset, it will have to do many of the same things it did in Storrs last year.
“They are a juggernaut,” Tartamella said. “It’s always a question of limiting their points off turnovers. And you have to be able to score. They have so many weapons that it’s difficult to stop them. You have to play your game and they have to be a little off. You have to go out and compete against them. But these players have always competed. So now they have to go out and play the game.”
It won’t be easy.