It has been 22 years since the UConn women’s basketball team reached the Final Four for the first time in New Orleans. The Huskies were just getting started at that point, wondering whether this was a one-time occurrence or the start of something truly special under the leadership of head coach Geno Auriemma.
The Huskies were joined that season by Tennessee, Stanford and Virginia. They were then not quite sure that they were worthy to share the stage with such accomplished programs. Auriemma wondered if they would ever again reach the Final Four.
Even after UConn won its first national championship in 1995, Auriemma still was not convinced that this team was on its way to sustained success. No matter how high his expectations were he never could have predicted that the Huskies would some day be recognized as one of those accomplished programs, let alone sit atop the sport with eight national championships.
“I’m always kind of looking into the future and thinking, `Is this it? Is this the last one? Is this one and done? Are we going to be one of those programs,’’’ Auriemma said. “So to look back now and see where we’ve come and what’s happened at Connecticut in the last 18 years, I would say never in our wildest dreams did we think that that was possible. Halfway through it, I still wasn’t sure where it would go.’’
For so long, under the leadership of legendary coach Pat Summitt, Tennessee had been the trendsetter. But in the aftermath of Tuesday’s 93-60 victory over Louisville in the NCAA tournament final, Tennessee is now UConn’s equal as both teams share the record for most national championships.
UConn is 8-0 overall in the final, with four wins coming against Tennessee (1994, 2000, 2003, 2004). The Lady Vols are 8-5 in the final.
To put into perspective how dominant these two programs have been since the dawn of the NCAA tournament in 1982, only four other programs that have won as many as two national championships – Baylor, Louisiana Tech, USC and Stanford.
“Winning (Tuesday) I think validates a lot of what we wanted to do, what we aspired to be,’’ Auriemma said. “On ESPN they put up a list of John Wooden, Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp. I’m like, `That’s not the way it works.’ I never beat Coach K in a game, and I never coached against Coach Wooden. So the only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt. And to be there in that spot with her means a lot to me.’’
The Lady Vols earned their eight championships in a span of 27 seasons from 1987-2008. They won six championships from 1987-1998.
UConn has won eight national championships in 19 seasons from 1995 to the present. The Huskies are also a combined 647-52 (.926) in this span with 13 Final Four appearances.
“Geno is a proven champion and a leader in our game,’’ Summitt said in a statement.
A legitimate case can be made that the Huskies have surpassed Tennessee at this point. They have won seven national championships and made 11 Final Four appearances in 14 seasons since 1999-2000.
Tennessee has won two national championships and made seven Final Four appearances in this same span. However, the Lady Vols have not returned to the Final Four since winning back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008.
Nonetheless, former UConn star and current ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said that until either team wins a ninth championship they will continue to share the top spot historically.
“Have (the Huskies) been the best program since 2000? That’s not even up for question,’’ Lobo said. “But you say them and Tennessee are the two best programs in women’s college basketball history – period. UConn’s won more recently so right now they’re the hot team. But you can’t say that they’re the best ever when Tennessee also has eight. You have to keep them both there together. Now if he gets to nine at some point then the discussion changes.’’
The opinion of current UConn players, of course, is that the Huskies have already supplanted Tennessee as the elite program in the sport.
“That’s definitely how I feel,’’ sophomore All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “When you talk about women’s basketball to most people, the first thing that comes to mind is UConn women’s basketball. That’s why I came here. I felt it was the best program in the country. I felt it was the best program to develop me.’’
The overall discussion could change a year from now. By returning All-Americans Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and Mosqueda-Lewis and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart, who is expected to attain All-American status as a sophomore, UConn will be the heavy favorite to repeat in 2014.
“I think Connecticut has definitely been the best program, regardless of how many national championships they have,’’ Hartley said. “There have been so many years of excellence, especially in the last 10 years. I think when you come to Connecticut you kind of want to become part of that tradition and you want to add to that tradition. I think every single person is here to represent UConn basketball in the right way and then say, `We’ve been part of it.’’’