'We want to win more than you want us to win': UConn's Geno Auriemma opens up about latest Final Four loss

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Twenty-five times, Geno Auriemma has coached a basketball season without UConn raising a trophy as national champion.

This, of course, is one of those seasons.

“A coach’s job is to put their team in contention to win every year,” Auriemma said. “A coach’s job is not to win a national championship every year. OK?”

Less than a week removed from a Final Four loss to Arizona in San Antonio, that was the first thought Auriemma offered when asked what people should understand about his team’s most recent accomplishments. He was his chatty self on Thursday afternoon — happy overall, sarcastic for stretches, dead serious at times.

“We’ve been to 21 Final Fours,” Auriemma said. “We’ve won 11 national championships. That means we’ve lost 10 (times at the Final Four). So what’s the big deal? We’ve won more than anybody in the history of the game. And we’ve lost 10 of them. So the people that are having issues, tell me when you were in the Final Four of anything. Tell me, when’s the last time your boss told you you’re one of the four best in the country at your job? And then, do they do that to you every year for 13 straight years? The answer is probably no.”

Auriemma has won 11 titles in 36 years, success that has transcended a sport, landed him in the Naismith Hall of Fame and created conversation to which he’s happy to add perspective.

The Huskies’ loss to Arizona was their fourth consecutive defeat in a national semifinal. They had won the previous four tournaments, pushing the bar of expectations high enough for any ensuing stumble — wherever, whenever — to leave factions of the public perplexed by opportunity lost.

UConn has been to the Final Four every year the tournament was held since being eliminated in the Elite Eight in 2007. The Huskies have won the national championship in six of those 13 trips to college basketball’s final destination.

“If winning a national championship is easy, how come it took Stanford 30 years between national championships?” Auriemma said of the Cardinal, whose victory this season was the program’s first since 1992. “So people have to be realistic. Not that I care. They can say whatever they want, have whatever expectations they want. We were (ticked) we lost, don’t get me wrong. You want to dissect it? ‘They didn’t do this, they should have done that.’ OK, good. But it’s funny because when we won it they didn’t go, ‘You won because the other team didn’t do this, didn’t do that.’ You just go, ‘Here’s what UConn did; it’s why they won.’

“I mean, don’t you think we wanted to win? We want to win more than you want us to win. How about you try to remember that. We want to win more than you want us to. We’re also realistic here. So we’ve lost four straight times in the Final Four. Name how many schools who have been to four Final Fours ... in their life.”

There are 10.

“Sometimes, and I use this in recruiting, I say ‘Do you know we’ve been to more Final Fours than some conferences?’” Auriemma said. “And then I’ll say ‘Do you know we have more national championships than some entire conferences?’”

The Huskies are 164-10 over the past five seasons. The team had won 75 games in a row prior to that, a winning streak they pushed to a record 111 in 2016-17 before it ended with an overtime loss at the buzzer to Mississippi State at the 2017 Final Four. A year later, Notre Dame beat UConn at the overtime buzzer, ending a bid for a seventh perfect season. Notre Dame beat the Huskies again in 2019.

This year, it was upstart Arizona — four days after UConn had barely outlasted Baylor in an Elite Eight game for the ages, a 69-67 victory that required every second on the clock and every ounce of emotional investment.

“It was like the Baylor game was the culmination of (the team’s progress), like, ‘Yo, guys, we’ve got to buckle our chin straps, man, this is it,’” Auriemma said. “Everybody is telling them this should be the championship game, this is going to be brutal, these guys are really good, tough, this and that. And we end up miraculously, somehow, winning that game.

“Everybody wants to put it on that last play [a no-call as Baylor tried to score]. Be smart. See the game for what it is. Their best defensive player (DiDi Richards) got hurt, we went on a 19-0 run and (they) didn’t answer and then we won, plain and simple. And to have to come back the very next game, the immaturity kicks in. ‘They can’t be as tough as Baylor.’ They felt like we already got through the hard part.”

Auriemma saw in players something that matches part of the general perception about his team and its place in the sport. UConn should win, maybe even easily. That’s dangerous. That’s taking something for granted.

“We were playing some really great basketball and we were getting contributions from everybody,” Auriemma said. “And it’s funny because we kind of knew what Baylor was all about, so we knew ‘This is what we’ve got to be, this is how it’s going to be, boom.’ The Arizona game, we didn’t have any experience with them. We spent a lot of time — a lot of time — between the Elite Eight game and the Final Four game, going over everything. And I think in their mind, ‘Yeah, OK, I wonder who we’re going to play (in the championship game), Stanford or South Carolina.’”

UConn thought it had an advantage in the paint against Arizona but that didn’t pan out. Outside, pressure increased on guards to make plays. The Huskies missed six free throws and at least 10 layups or short shots. They shot 35.7 percent, well below their season average of 51.1, and couldn’t contain Wildcats guard Aari McDonald.

“So how do you win a game doing that?” said Auriemma, whose team lost 69-59. “You don’t. You don’t unless the other team is bad. There are no Final Four teams that are bad. Arizona played great, and we did everything we could to lose that game. I don’t mind getting beat. I don’t mind if we do what we set out to do and they just do it better and we get beat. But for us to have Arizona play that well, offensively, and that kid play that well and everybody else chip in that well, and then for us to do everything in our power lose the game … that to me was the most disappointing part. As well as Arizona played, had we just done a little more of what we were accustomed to doing, we would have won the game.”

It was an upset, for sure.

It was probably upsetting to some.

Cue the sarcasm.

“We could save you a lot of problems and just lose in the first round,” Auriemma said. “Then you won’t have so much angst. But you know what, we’re going to punish you, we’re going to be just good enough to torment you. We’re not going to be bad enough where you’re sick of us and stop following us. We’re going to make you follow us all the way until the end and then we’re going to stick it to you. We’re going to torture you. How’s that?”

UConn’s 21 Final Four appearances are a record, with Tennessee second at 18. Stanford (14), Louisiana Tech (10) and Notre Dame (9) round out the top five. No others school has more than five.

“My kids are devastated,” Auriemma said. “My kids just put in 12 months of hard work, sacrificed everything. The whole COVID thing, they haven’t been home since July 26. ... My guys put blood, sweat and tears into this. You don’t think we want this more than you do? That’s the thing that a lot of fans can’t wrap their heads around. We win all the time and they go, ‘You have no competition.’ We lose and they go, ‘You can’t win because you (stink). So you want it to be competitive, but you don’t want us to lose.”

Since winning its first national championship in 1995, the longest the Huskies have gone without another is four years. It’s been five years (but four tournaments). The Huskies, returning every key player, are likely to be the 2021-22 preseason No. 1 team.

“There’s no guarantee that there’s going to be any more,” Auriemma said. “But as long as we’re in the gym when they’re trying to give out that trophy, we’re good. That’s all you want. You want to be in the gym when they’re trying to decide how to give out that trophy.”


@hearstmediact.com; @MAnthonyHearst