First Trip To The Sweet 16 Forever Memorable For Auriemma

The Huskies will be playing in the NCAA regional semifinals for the 20th straight season and the 21st time in 25 NCAA tournament appearances Saturday when they meet fourth-seeded Maryland at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport (2:30 p.m.). But advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 1991 is something that UConn coach Geno Auriemma will never forget.

The Huskies did not make the NCAA tournament during the first three seasons of Auriemma’s now legendary tenure (1986-1988). They lost to LaSalle in the first round in their first trip to the tournament in 1989 and lost their first game (second round) to Clemson in 1990.

UConn finally broke through March 16, 1991 when All-American Kerry Bascom scored a team NCAA tournament single-game record 39 points in an 81-80 win over Toledo in the second round at Gampel Pavilion.

“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?’ That night changed everything at Connecticut. 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.’’

The win over Toledo came right down to the final second of the game. Bascom had given UConn an 81-80 lead with a three-point play with 19 seconds remaining. But official Simmie Lavender would call a foul on Wendy Davis at the buzzer, which would have sent Toledo to the line in a 1-and-1 situation.

Lavender and fellow official Dee Kantner met to discuss the call before Kantner waved off the foul.

“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 they 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.’’’

The Huskies followed by defeating NC State March 21 and Clemson March 23 at The Palestra in Philadelphia to win the regional and advance to the Final Four for the first time.

UConn is now second all-time in regional appearances. Tennessee has made 31.

The Huskies’ run of 20 straight appearances is also second to Tennessee (27; 1982-2008).

“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,’’ Auriemma said. “That 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.’’