STORRS — On the afternoon before his 31st straight trip to the NCAA tournament, Geno Auriemma circled back to his very first.
The date: March 15, 1989.
“We were going to play La Salle,” the UConn women’s basketball coach recalled Thursday at Gampel Pavilion. “Might have been college at the time, they might not have been La Salle University at that time, I don’t even know.”
All these years later, that fact remains a little fuzzy. What Auriemma does remember, though, is how he prepared his players for that opportunity.
“I wasn’t gonna like panic and overdo it and start coaching like John Wooden or something. So,” Auriemma said, “one day we played wiffleball. I was just trying to get their minds off of that this was a different game than the kind of games they were playing during the regular season.
“And a lot of our kids knew a lot of the kids on the La Salle team. It was a really good game and the excitement was unbelievable and the emotions were really high. It was like the greatest thrill ever to be the first team … in your school in women’s basketball to go to the NCAA Tournament.”
Playing on campus at Greer Field House, the Huskies lost to La Salle, 72-63. Their best player, Kerry Bascom, got nicked up in the process.
It was a rewarding yet nerve-wracking experience, one the now 11-time national champion is certain to never forget.
Towson figures to ride that same emotional roller-coaster as it prepares for Friday’s first-round game against the No. 2 Huskies (31-2) in the Albany Regional. Fresh off a Colonial Athletic Association title, the Tigers find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the very first time.
“Just an unreal moment,” senior center Maia Lee called it. “Just being here, being with all the teams, having the NCAA gear, the hats, it’s just becoming so real. It’s just an amazing feeling.
“When you’re a little kid, you dream about these types of moments.”
Lee’s coach at Towson, Diane Richardson, described the opportunity in a more subdued manner. Calling her players “hungry and focused,” Richardson said the Tigers match up well on paper with the preeminent program in the sport.
The Tigers overcame long odds this year to win 20 games, more than doubling their total from a year ago. They beat Delaware, Hofstra and Drexel in the span of three days to lock up a bid.
“We had a tough non-conference schedule that prepared us for that,” Richardson said. “They went in determined to do that because we planned that the entire season. I put it down like we are going to the beach, and anytime you are going to the beach, there are going to be tolls and bridges. We were going on that road to the beach this year and there were going to be tolls.”
What Richardson may soon find out is that for even the most highly touted freshmen, playing in the tournament for the first time is no trip to the beach.
Auriemma, now in his 34th season, was asked Monday how he expected the Huskies’ two freshmen — guard Christyn Williams and forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa — to handle their first trip to the big dance.
“They’ll (crap) themselves, I’m sure, because that’s what freshmen do,” Auriemma said. “But, you know, once the game gets started, then you start going up and down the floor and bodies start flying, things start going, the crowd will get all blocked out. The whatever it is that separates the NCAA Tournament from any other game, it will all start to blend in. And then they’ll realize they’re just in a game.
“But in the beginning, yeah, yeah.”
“It’s just a different atmosphere,” UConn junior guard Crystal Dangerfield added. “You’re not really sure what to expect when you get out there. I think at the end of the day, you can’t be too overwhelmed by it. But still knowing if you don’t win, that’s your last game for the season.”
Buffalo coach Felisha Leggette-Jack, whose team plays No. 7 Rutgers Friday in Storrs (4:30 p.m.), joked that her seven freshmen have been walking around Gampel Pavilion with pens and papers in their pockets just in case they run into Auriemma.
“Those seven freshmen are really acting tough and walking around,” she said. “But I know they’re saying ‘OMG, I’m at UConn, where all they do is win, win, win. And there’s a chance we can meet Geno. Not play a game, not play Rutgers.'"