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UConn women's basketball, Geno Auriemma can go from greatness to greatest ever

By Jeff Washburn, Sports Xchange
UConn women's basketball, Geno Auriemma can go from greatness to greatest ever
UConn Huskies' head coach Geno Auriemma celebrates with Breanna Stewart (30) during the second half of play against Oregon State in their National Semifinal game of 2016 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 3, 2016. .Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo

INDIANAPOLIS - Geno Auriemma anticipated the question, knowing his UConn women's basketball team is a Tuesday night victory against 14th-ranked Syracuse from being compared to the most dominant college basketball program ever.

When the Huskies (37-0) put their 74-game winning streak on the line in the quest for a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament championship and what would be their 11th overall, Auriemma and those basketball historians who remember John Wooden's nearly flawless UCLA men's basketball teams of the 1960s and 1970s will have plenty of material for discussion.

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And in an interesting twist, UConn will be attempting to make history in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, approximately 45 miles from where Wooden grew up in Martinsville, Ind., and 65 miles from the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, where Wooden was an All-American basketball player.

UCLA has won 11 Division I men's national championships, including Wooden's 10 in 12 seasons from 1964 through 1975. Wooden's Bruins won seven in a row from 1967 through 1973, posting undefeated seasons in 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973.

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"When I was a kid, I was a great admirer of the UCLA basketball program," said Auriemma, whose senior class that includes Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck is 150-5 in the past four seasons, including 115-1 in the past three seasons.

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"We used to have these discussions when I was in high school. Would you rather play for UCLA and sit on the bench, or would you rather play 40 minutes somewhere else and know you're never going to win a national championship? Those were interesting discussions. Different people think different things. I knew every one of UCLA's players. I read everything about them. I just loved it. I loved everything about them. I loved the way they played."

Now, more than 40 years since Wooden's final national championship, Auriemma knows that those who follow the women's college game likely are saying similar things about the history UConn is making.

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When they play Syracuse (30-7) on Tuesday night, the Huskies will be gunning for a 24th consecutive NCAA tournament victory. In Sunday's semifinals, UConn's 29-point victory against Oregon State was the largest ever in a national semifinal and the second largest margin in Final Four history.

UConn shot 56.7 percent (34 of 60) in destroying Oregon State and did so without starting guard Katie Lou Samuelson in the second half after the freshman broke a bone in her left foot in the first quarter and will be out tonight against a Syracuse team that uses full court pressure defense as the centerpiece of what it does.

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The Orange scored 37 "hustle" points - points off turnovers and offensive rebounds - to blow past Washington 80-59 in the other semifinal.

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"Every year on Media Day, coach (Quentin Hillsman) says that we are going to win the national championship, and now we're going to compete for the national championship," Syracuse guard Brittney Sykes said. "Whether it took us two years, three years or four years, we're here.

"We're here in the moment, and we're living the moment. (Tuesday), we will be competing for what he has been saying all these years."

Hillsman said that full court pressure defense got Syracuse to the national championship game and that the Orange will at least attempt to use that style of play against possibly the best women's basketball team in history.

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"We have to," Hillsman said. "I don't know if we can play any other way. That's what we do. And we've had some success doing that. We understand that they are a very balanced team with multiple ball handlers and quickness. And their post players can handle the ball.

"But we've got to try to do what we've done to get to this point. I don't think we can get to the last game of the season and change what we do."

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National Player of the Year Stewart, who is from North Syracuse, N.Y., accepted a UConn scholarship offer with a goal of winning four consecutive national championships. She now is 40 minutes from achieving that milestone.

"I think it all began to sink in Sunday night as we were getting back to the locker room after beating Oregon State," Stewart said. "We are excited. We know that we have one game left. We're exactly in the position that we want to be in. We practiced Monday, then it's the national championship game Tuesday."

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