By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — The last time the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team began a home-and-home series with Penn State, it wasn’t even a 1-for-1 deal and Geno Auriemma was an assistant to Phil Martelli with the Bishop Kenrick High boys team in Norristown, Pa.
The Huskies and Lady Lions met three times from 1981-83, twice in University Park and once in Storrs, with Penn State winning the three by an average of 24.0 points.
Since Auriemma became the UConn coach in 1985, the teams have met seven times but never on one’s campus. Three were played during in-season tournaments and the other four were NCAA tournament games.
So No. 10 Penn State’s visit Thursday night to Gampel Pavilion to take on the second-ranked Huskies (7 p.m., SNY) is significant. It’s part of a two-game deal between the schools signed earlier this year. UConn will play at Penn State next season.
“We played a couple years ago at Madison Square Garden and now we’ve got the home and home,” Auriemma said Wednesday. “I know we’d like to continue it. I think UConn wants to continue it. We’ll have to see what the contracts and what-nots look like. Hopefully, this can be the beginning of a pretty nice rivalry here on the East Coast.”
Why these two Eastern powers haven’t played more often no one really knows for sure. But from the UConn side, the blame is on Penn State and former Lady Lions coach (1981-2007) Rene Portland.
When Auriemma took over at UConn and was the up-and-coming team while Penn State was THE team in the East, Auriemma tried to get a series going with the Lady Lions but was turned down. The teams did play on Nov. 25, 1989, in a tournament in Iowa City, Iowa, with UConn pulling out a 93-84 overtime win behind 34 points and 13 rebounds by Kerry Bascom.
The teams would not play again for 10 years and it was no secret the relationship between Auriemma and Portland was frosty.
UConn defeated Penn State in the NCAA Final Four semifinals in 2000 and the teams met again in the 2002 Mideast Regional semifinals in Milwaukee. During the press conference the day before the game Auriemma spoke about trying to schedule Penn State in his early days and his frustration with Portland that it never worked out.
“That’s a long time ago. He has a pretty good memory,” Portland responded.
Auriemma would get the last word,
“Rene loves to say things that irritate people and she’s one of the best in the country at it,” he said. “Our schedule is pretty much set for the next couple of years. Maybe when we get to be as good as they are we’ll find a way.”
The 2000 Final Four appearance was Penn State’s only one during Portland’s 27-year tenure. Of course, UConn has been to the Final Four 13 times with seven national championships in Auriemma’s 27 years.
But when Coquese Washington took over for Portland, the door was opened for a series. Auriemma and Washington have a solid relationship dating back to Washington’s days as an assistant at Notre Dame.
And now that Washington has turned Penn State back into a national contender, it’s a reality and a game everyone can look forward to.
“I know we’d like to continue it and I think UConn wants to continue it,” Washington said during a teleconference Wednesday. “We’ll have to see what the contract looks like. We want to play against the best competition. We want our fans to be able to see players come through here and give them an entertaining and exciting game to watch. I think it is great for the East Coast.
“We got a bunch of kids who brought a lot of buses, that is what makes college sports fun. You go on road trips, go and cheer your team on and they come back the next year. Hopefully this could be the beginning of a nice rivalry.”
While her players have never been to Gampel Pavilion, Washington was here during her days as a coach under Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw.
“I remember going there with Jacqueline Batteast (in 2005) and beating them,” Washington said. “Then we played there in 2001 (in the Big East tournament final). It’s not a great memory for me but I remember Sue Bird making that shot at the buzzer over Ruth Riley’s outstretched arms.”
Penn State (6-1) suffered its first loss a week ago at Miami of Florida but rebounded Sunday with a rout of Fairleigh Dickinson. The Lady Lions are led by guards Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley.
Lucas was a high school teammate of UConn fifth-year senior Caroline Doty for two years at Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania.
The teams met in last season’s NCAA Sweet 16 with the Huskies prevailing 77-59 at the Ryan Center in Kingston, R.I.
UConn (7-0) is coming off Monday night’s 63-48 win over No. 9 Maryland at the Jimmy V Classic in Hartford. The Huskies could be without sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who is a game time decision after suffering a left quadricep contusion in the first half against the Terrapins.
Maryland played a very physical style against the Huskies. Penn State does not have the size Maryland had but the Lady Lions’ 3-point shooting and perimeter games are concerns.
“Having two games that are so close yet so different is really good for us,” UConn center Stefanie Dolson said. “One game we got to work on certain things and the second game we’re working on other things.
“But at the same time the games are similar because both teams are great teams, very aggressive and tough. We have to be ready for a battle.”
Following Thursday night’s game, UConn will take a break for fall semester final exams. The Huskies will return to action Dec. 19 against Oakland (Mich.) at the XL Center in Hartford.