One of UConn’s finest was seen at Gampel Pavilion Tuesday playing defense during the Huskies’ three-plus hour practice. She chatted with UConn legend Dee Rowe, met with the media on hand and looked every bit as happy to be back where her own legend was spawned. Former National Player of the Year Sue Bird paid yet another visit to Storrs. And this time it wasn’t with Team USA for an exhibition game as it was last November. This was simply a visit to a place she still calls home.
There is undeniably a special bond that exists between Geno Auriemma and his players. Oh, they might hate him many times during the course of their career for the way he demands greatness every day. But, boy, do they love him dearly once they move on. And it is this type of bond between player and coach is what drives people at other schools batty.
“I think the fun part, and it never stops being fun for our guys, is how much they feel connected to this thing here,’’ Geno said. “And I don’t mean connected to this building. It’s like coming home for the holidays. It doesn’t matter where your family is. As long as you’re with them there’s a connection there that I find really satisfying. And they make it a point to do that. I don’t know who gets more of a kick out of it, the players that we have who see them back here or the ones who come back and how they feel about being back to where they had some of the greatest moments of their careers and great memories.’’
Bird, who is currently on break from her stint with Moscow Spartak until Jan. 7, did not attend today’s game against Hartford at the Xl Center. But she said she will be back Saturday when the Huskies face LSU in Hartford. She Diana Taurasi, Asjha Jones, Maria Conlon and Ashley Valley might also be on hand.
“I actually haven’t been able to come back to catch a game,’’ Bird said. “The last time I was here was with the USA Team. That was obviously a little different. I wasn’t completely on my own. But other than that on my own I haven’t really been able to get up here. So I had the opportunity and I wanted to get up here.’’
Bird said she “absolutely’’ keeps up with the Huskies throughout the season and she watched the Penn State game on TV Dec. 14. Here’s her take on this year’s top-ranked team.
“They’re very good,’’ she said. “I think it’s still early in the season. I can hear the things he’s nitpicking on and I think that’s very normal. We were nitpicked on as well. And I guarantee there will come a time because they have a really good balance of older players, obviously, like Renee, even Tina now. Tina’s playing great. You can tell in practice. And they’ve been around. They’ve been to a Final Four. They know what it’s like. They know what it takes. You’ve got the young players kind of coming in who will follow that lead. And I guarantee by the end of the year they’ll be pretty good.’’
Sue knows something about being pretty good. She was a senior on the 39-0 team in 2001-02. There have been comparisons made between this team and that one already. But she won’t go there.
“We got compared to ‘95,’’ she said. “It’s two totally different teams I think. Just like we were different from ’95. So it’s hard to say. But, hey, I hope they win. I hope they go undefeated.’’
As far as Geno is concerned she said he hasn’t changed much since she moved on to the WNBA.
“Very nitpicky,’’ she said. “That’s the first thing I noticed (Tuesday). But that’s always how he is. He wants perfection and he knows that if you can do it in these circumstances with him on your back for the tiniest of mistakes come game time you’ll be able to get it done.’’
Erica Beverly, the former Kolbe Cathedral star who was a unanimous preseason All-America East selection, continues to find success at Hartford. And head coach Jennifer Rizzotti couldn’t be happier with her progress.
Erica had nine points and four rebounds in 26 minutes against the Huskies today at the XL Center. It was another steady performance against an upper echelon team this season. She had four points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes in a victory over then-No. 6 Duke Nov. 21; nine points, seven rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes against then-No. 20 Ohio State Nov. 25; and she had five points and six rebounds in 30 minutes against then-No. 12 Louisville Dec. 10.
All of these games were played on the road or at a neutral site.
Erica was named the conference Player of the Week for the first time Dec. 22. Through the first 12 games this season, she is second on the Hawks in scoring (9.5), steals (1.7) and minutes (28.3) and leads the team in rebounding (7.9).
“Erica’s just been phenomenal,’’ Rizzotti said. “I can’t imagine that she is that much better this year than she was the first two years at Hartford, but she is. She was the best freshman we’ve ever had and she’s already a lot better. She’s taken it upon herself to score more, to be more aggressive. Defensively, I think she’s a machine. I thought she did a phenomenal job today on the ball, but also off the ball in helping. They only have her for one block, which I’ll have to talk to the stat guys on that because she should have certainly had more than that. But she’s just been our most competitive player, our most consistent player and she’s definitely our best all-around player. And she thrives on games like this. And in every game we’ve played against a top opponent she’s been our best player, and I think today is no exception.’’
Happy New Year everybody!!