Arch: UConn’s Auriemma wary, respectful of UD women

And then there’s the thing he just thought up Saturday as he watched the Dayton Flyers women upset Louisville to advance to their first-ever Elite Eight NCAA Tournament game, a 7 p.m. match-up tonight against his mighty Connecticut Huskies at the Times Union Center here in Albany:

Once UConn was Dayton.

The coach of the nation’s best collegiate women’s basketball team knows more about Dayton — the school, the UD team, its coach Jim Jabir and the city and surrounding area — than you might imagine:

•He knows about Jabir’s career and its stops, especially Providence, back when both of their schools were in the Big East. The two men faced each other eight times, but Jabir, who had inherited the long-struggling Friars’ program, never did beat his UConn counterpart.

Even so, Auriemma was impressed enough that when UD was searching for a replacement for Jaci Clark, he sought out Ted Kissell, then the Dayton athletics director, and suggested Jabir.

“Providence was a difficult situation for anybody,” Auriemma said Sunday. “But he’s at a great place right now — a place that really appreciates basketball. It’s a basketball town and Dayton is a basketball school.”

•Auriemma’s teams have played NCAA Tournament games at UD Arena and a regular-season game against Wright State at the Nutter Center.

And when he recruited Tamika Williams — who scored 1,402 points as a Huskie, grabbed 763 rebounds and was part of two national title teams — he visited Chaminade-Julienne High. Later, when she already was in the UConn fold, he stopped by her Jefferson Township home where her late dad, George, cooked barbecue using his “secret sauce.”

“Her dad passed away recently, he was a Vietnam vet,” Auriemma said with quiet respect as he stood outside the UConn dressing room. “To this day — to this VERY DAY — I don’t think I’ve ever gone into anybody’s house with recruiting and felt like, ‘Man, I want him on my team.’ He was one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve ever met.

“The guy always had a smile and you never heard a bad word came out of his mouth. He was just a great, great man. And Tamika is a lot like him. She was a remarkable athlete … and a pretty special kid.”

•When the subject turned to NCAA Tournament games at UD Arena, his smile was there and then it wasn’t.

In 1998, his team came into the Dayton Regional as a No. 1 seed and beat Arizona before falling to Kay Yow’s North Carolina State team in the Elite Eight. Twelve years later he brought the Huskies back for another regional and they crushed Iowa State and Florida State on the way to a national title.

“The thing I remember most about those trips was how passionate the people there were about the games,” he said. “There’s a reason they host all those events. It’s a great place to play, a great arena.”

Tonight his current team plays for another trip to the Final Four — it would be their 16th in 25 seasons — and in the way stands the underdog Flyers.

Yet, listen to Auriemma Sunday afternoon: “I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down when they won last night, to be honest with you. They are not an easy team to prepare for, not an easy team to play against.”

That might sound like little more lip service or simple pregame niceties since the 34-1 Huskies have won their games by an average of more than 42 points this season.

And Saturday — in what Auriemma called “one of our best efforts, our best performances of the year,” — UConn easily pushed aside Texas, 105-54. It was one of 15 games this season that it won by 50 or more points.

While the Flyers would seem to have little chance to go toe-to-toe with the No. 1 Huskies, Auriemma says “not so fast.”

Like he said, UConn once was UD.

“I thought of it when they played Louisville. It was like in 1991 when we came out of nowhere supposedly. No one knew anything about us. But that year we finished the regular season ranked 25th in the country or some nonsense. We won the regular season in the Big East and we won the (conference) tournament. We had a great mix of seniors and juniors and we played down at the Palestra in Philadelphia.

“We played a couple of teams everyone was convinced were way better than us. They were from the ACC. I remember being in Dayton’s shoes, really being anxious to play — first N.C .State and then Clemson. Even though they had bigger names and bigger players and more athletes, I thought we were the better team and we were. We went to the Final Four.

“I’m sure that’s what Jim’s telling his guys now, how we have the All Americans, we’re bigger and we’re quicker and faster and all that. And he might be saying, ‘But we have a better team.’ ”

Auriemma said the 28-6 Flyers remind him of the Wisconsin-Green Bay, who his team played early this season.

“They have five players who all move really well with and without the ball,” he said. “They’re all comfortable on different spots on the floor. Teams like that can be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament.

“People tend to overlook them because they don’t have a big name or they don’t have a long history in the NCAA Tournament. People tend to dismiss them. And then they sneak up on you and before you know it you’re in a game you don’t want to be in.”

That said, Auriemma said a No. 7 seed like Dayton being in the Elite Eight is good for the women’s game.

“That generally doesn’t happen a lot on the women’s side, so Dayton playing this weekend is important. A lot of schools in that same situation are going to look around and say, ‘Hey, that could be us!’

“And Dayton beating Kentucky at Kentucky, that’s not an easy thing to do. So maybe yesterday wasn’t an upset… So it really is good for the game.”

With a laugh, he added: “But I just don’t want them to get carried away… Enough is enough.”

Dayton did play at UConn in November of 2011.

Current Flyers seniors, Ally Malott of Andrea Hoover were just freshmen, playing the sixth game of their college careers. The Flyers lost by 40.

At the time, Jabir said he used it as a teaching tool, to show his players what the upper echelon of women’s college basketball actually was about. He stressed how strong and quick and athletic the players were. And, most of all, how hard they played.

The Flyers have moved in that direction — this is their sixth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament — and as Malott put it Sunday: “I’m excited to have the opportunity to play them again. We’re a completely different team now.”

Auriemma is of the same mind set.

“They play a style that’s fun to watch. They’re fearless. They’re not intimated by anybody. They play together and help each other and Jim puts them in great positions to be successful.”

That they are doesn’t surprise him. He said he remembers some of the players from their high school days when he was recruiting the area and got Samarie Walker out of CJ, though she soon transferred to Kentucky.

“You don’t have to drive very far to find a lot of really good basketball players in Ohio,” he said. “It’s a basketball hotbed.

“And this is only going to make it more so.”

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