The deal likely would not have been reached with Central Connecticut, Fairfield, Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart or Yale. If any of these teams wanted to again play UConn they would have to do so at either Gampel Pavilion or the XL Center. It would be a home game for the Huskies, period.
UConn has not played a road game in the state of Connecticut since a 60-58 win at Fairfield Dec. 10, 1991. With the amount of money at stake at the turnstiles and with the Huskies’ national prominence being what it is, giving up home games just does not happen any more.
This is why Saturday’s game at the 4,017-seat Chase Family Arena on the campus of the University of Hartford is so unique. It took the deep rooted admiration and respect that UConn coach Geno Auriemma has for Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti, a former UConn All-American, to make it happen.
“With Jen it may be different than it is with some other teams,’’ Auriemma said. “With some other teams, you can say, `Take it or leave it. You want to play us, this is what it’s going to be like.’ And I told Jennifer before we even started the series, `Whenever you want to play, let me know. Whenever you don’t want to play, let me know. It’s up to you.’ We had taken a couple years off I think, so when she suggested, `Let’s play again,’ I said, `Sure.’ And she said, `But I want you to play at our place.’ And I said, `Sure, why not?’ Because it’s hard for her to get like … the No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 team in the country has never played at the University of Hartford, probably. I could be wrong, but probably. And now she can say, `Well, yeah, they have.’ And her fans can experience what a sellout feels like and her players can.
“I think that she’s a smart kid. She’s a tough kid. She wants to get some things on her side. She figures we played at Gampel and we played at the (XL) Center, and `I just want a shot at you at our place.’ We came to a good deal. Two Italians trying to figure out a good deal, I think. We’re playing them once at their place, once at the XL Center I think and 72 times at Gampel. That was the arrangement we made.’’
Then-No. 18 St. John’s became the highest ranked team to play at Chase Family Arena Nov. 25. Prior to that then-No. 23 Louisville had been the highest ranked opponent to play in West Hartford (Nov. 17, 2009).
The Hawks are 3-1 against Top 25 teams under Rizzotti. UConn is 12-0 all-time against the Hawks, winning the last four games by an average of 29.5 points.
“I think it can create some excitement and bring some attention to the season that we’re having,’’ Rizzotti said of Saturday’s match-up. “I think getting people in our venue it’ll be nice for them to see the atmosphere we have here at Hartford and how great of a place it is to watch a women’s basketball game. I think it’s just going to be a fun all-around day.
“The basketball I think kind of takes a backseat in our minds. We want to get better and challenge ourselves, but selling out the building and attracting a great team to our arena and being able to recognize our fans and season ticket holders is certainly first and foremost for us.’’
Rizzotti is in her 14th season at Hartford. The Hawks (8-2) have faced UConn seven times during her tenure – six times at the XL Center and once at Gampel Pavilion in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2011. The opportunity to host the Huskies Saturday was essential in finalizing what is currently a three-year deal between the teams.
“I wouldn’t have played it otherwise,’’ Rizzotti said. “It had nothing to do with UConn. It had to do with our philosophy in scheduling that we weren’t going to do guarantee games any more. Three years ago, we decided we weren’t going to play guarantee games any more. UConn plays guarantee games with non-Top 25 opponents so we said `no’ to the series. Yeah, I like to take breaks against teams I’ve played five, six, seven years in a row. But I think it had more to do with the fact we want home-and-home series, and that’s what we’re going to do. We have to do what’s best for Hartford.
“So we wanted to have all of our games be home-and-home. If it meant that we had to go away like we went to Vanderbilt this year to get them to return to us or that we had to play at St. John’s last year to get them to return to us this year, that was how we were going to schedule in the future. For this series to continue, I wanted to do the same thing. I want to bring top-level competition to the Chase Family Arena. And so, of course, there’s no better team for us than to have it be UConn, and I’m glad that they agreed to doing it.
“When we were able to work it out with UConn that we could play here, that’s when the series would restart. So we took a couple years off, because I didn’t want to play a guarantee game. It’s pretty straight forward. It’ll be a great experience for our players to play this kind of team at home. Going to the (XL) Center every single year and losing by 30, 40, the novelty of playing in front of 10,000 people wears off. But the novelty of playing on our home court with 3,500 people and a sellout, I don’t think that will ever wear off.’’
Hartford will have just one home game in this deal. UConn will close it out with two home games against the Hawks.
Auriemma and Rizzotti are both anticipating an electric atmosphere Saturday.
“(UConn assistant coach) Shea (Ralph) and I were talking, and I said it’s going to be like when we went to Holy Cross (Jan. 20, 2000),’’ Auriemma said. “And the place was sold out and students were right on top of you. It’s totally different from what they get. It does bring back memories for them of being in a big huge game in the state tournament, played at a big gym instead of their own little place. It’s not an arena. It’s not 16,000 or 12,000. So I think the kids are going to love it. I think they’re going to have a great time. The fans are going to love it. Jen’s kids are going to love it. I’m actually kind of excited about it.’’
Said Rizzotti: “It will be an amazing atmosphere. I can’t imagine any scenario where it wouldn’t be. It’s sold out. UConn fans are great. Our fans are great. There will be a lot of people cheering for both teams. Their players play really hard and are fun to watch. Our kids play really hard, and I hope they’re going to have fun with the game. Both coaches are animated on the sidelines and in some cases fun to watch. So I think it’s going to be a good day overall. I’m trying not to focus on the outcome or the score, just the process and what it means for our program to have them here and trying to get my kids to play excited and hard without overdoing it.’’