UConn's fans true blue to the end
Updated: Monday April 02, 2001 12:24 AM
WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. (AP) -- The Connecticut women's basketball team arrived home Sunday night at Bradley International Airport where they were greeted by more than 300 fans, the governor and several dozen red roses.
Plane delays and bone-chilling cold weren't enough to keep fans from their Huskies.
"I always knew that these fans were loyal, but I never knew they were so hearty too," said Gov. John G. Rowland.
Rowland and his wife, Patricia, handed each player roses as they got off the plane and later joined coach Geno Auriemma and the team on a podium.
"Here in Connecticut in the hearts and minds of all of us, you are true champions," said Rowland. "We want to thank you for your spirit and determination through all the ups and downs."
The team withstood season-ending injuries to senior All-Americans Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph and still had enough depth to win the Big East tournament title and reach the Final Four. The team fell one game short of reaching the championship and making good on Auriemma's guarantee for a second-straight title.
"There is one other promise I would like to make," Auriemma told the fans. "As long as we're playing basketball in Connecticut, I hope our team shows as much passion and commitment and strength as you guys do standing out here for 13 hours."
Huskies were supposed to arrive about 3:30 p.m. Fans started arriving early only to learn the charter plane was late getting to St. Louis to pick up the team. The plane finally touched down at Bradley just after 11 p.m.
"Our team is not losers, they're champions in our heart," said Bonnie Dingus, of Branford. "It's like a field of dreams. Geno (Auriemma) has built a program and we have come."
It didn't matter the team would arrive without a national championship. It also didn't matter the return was delayed by seven hours. Nearly 48 hours after the Huskies lost to Notre Dame in the Final Four semifinal, the fans were there for a group hug.
"My biggest concern is the heartbreak the girls feel," said Gloria Gramolini, 71, of Seymour. "It was so tough on me, imagine how tough it is for them. That's why we're all here today."
Gramolini and her son Gordon, 40, had camped out at the airport since 2 p.m.
The Department of Transportation, which oversees the airport, kept a minibus running with heat to allow fans to warm up. Some employees even shared pizza with the fans.
The players fanned out after their arrival, greeting their well-wishers and signing autographs.
"See all these fans here," said Shea Ralph. "It just gives us a special feeling. Next year, this team is going to come with such a vibe you've never seen before."
Signs lined the field to let the team know they were still No. 1 in Connecticut. The fans were there to soften the landing of a painful loss two nights earlier.
The Huskies let a 16-point half lead slip away, and with it, the chance for a second straight national title and a third overall. Big East rival Notre Dame pulled off one of the biggest turnarounds in Final Four history to beat the Huskies 90-75 in the semifinal.
Notre Dame beat the Huskies in two out of three games this season and went on to win the national championship with a 68-66 win over Purdue on Sunday.
But none of that mattered Sunday night to the faithful.
"We wanted them to know in all the important ways, they're still the best. They're good students, they're good kids and they are winners," said Rita Thiery, of East Hartford.
And although Auriemma wasn't making anymore guarantees, the governor was.
"We'll see you all in San Antonio next year," said Rowland.