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At the opening of practice on Oct. 15 Auriemma had laid out three goals, two of which UConn had now achieved: a regular-season title and a conference tournament crown. Only the Final Four remained. "The goals were small but attainable," Bascom says. "According to Geno, he knew what would happen the whole time."
Auriemma's confidence was astonishing, if only because to this point Connecticut had never even won an NCAA tournament game. When the UConn women finally broke through, it would be Bascom's doing. The third-seeded Huskies' first opponent, Toledo, had used superb guard play to match Connecticut basket for basket and with 20 seconds remaining led the Huskies by two. Here Bascom took a pass in the post, pulled a little drop-step move and powered a layup through the hoop. She drew a foul from the Rockets' Kris Finefrock and added the winning free throw, her 39th point of the game, to give UConn a breakthrough 81-80 victory.
Next up was the East Region's No. 2 seed, N.C. State, in the Sweet 16. With 6' 3" front liners Rhonda Mapp and Sharon Manning, and perhaps the finest athlete in the game in wing Andrea Stinson, "they were the most talented team in the country," Auriemma says. "We didn't have a player in the Top 100 coming out of high school." But the Huskies heard echoes of Auburn. "They came in very sure of themselves," remembers Davis, who is the women's basketball coach at Trinity College in Hartford. "They were definitely looking past us."
On Auriemma's 37th birthday, in Philadelphia, near the coach's hometown of Norristown, and with family and friends converging on the Palestra, UConn rolled 82-71. Lishness sprang for 22 points, and the Huskies sank 9 of 16 shots from beyond the arc, with Davis and Grossman splitting eight of them. "When we were able to beat them, everybody, including Coach, finally realized, Maybe we're not so bad," Davis recalls.
In practice the following day Auriemma kicked a bleacher, then fretted that he'd have to wear sneakers for the regional final because of a swollen toe. The day after that Bascom poured in 22, and UConn held Clemson to 33% shooting as the Huskies locked up a spot in the Final Four with a 60-57 victory. "A team," Auriemma called his Huskies afterward, "in the truest sense of the word."
The next week was a blur even in real time, much less 18 years later in recollection: the police escort, the tarted-up floor in New Orleans's Lakefront Arena, the scene on Bourbon Street, the ESPN camera crew assigned to their delegation. In the semifinal against Virginia, whose leader, Dawn Staley, would be named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Bascom picked up two quick fouls. Davis, drugged to fight off a stomach ailment, played well enough, but the mercurial Lishness never got untracked. The Huskies' lack of quickness seemed to catch up with them as the Cavaliers chased down more loose balls and claimed a 61-55 victory. "We did everything in New Orleans, saw all the sights," Auriemma recalls. "At the time, that was the best thing that had happened to any of us. And then we got to the game, and it's like, there's 10 minutes left and we're down 10. 'Yo, guys—how about if we win this thing?' And we cut it to two [in the final minute] but didn't have enough to come back. When we got home, the one regret was that we forgot to win the game."
UCONN WOULD NEVER AGAIN FAIL AT A FINAL FOUR due to some oversight. "We really enjoyed getting there," Pattyson says today, "and we were really pissed when we lost." Pattyson had joined Auriemma's staff as an assistant coach by 1995, when the undefeated Huskies reached their next Final Four, in Minneapolis. Auriemma chose to pass up the NCAA-assigned hotel in favor of more reclusive quarters, prophetically telling his charges that they were on a business trip "to make history."
The UConn women can now count 10 Final Fours. But in the spring of 1991, in the wake of that first run, Auriemma and his staff recognized what the accomplishment foretold: If they could reach the Final Four without any elite recruits, now that they had a state-of-the-art, on-campus arena, and now that they could take the UConn brand into any corner of the country without being mistaken for a dogsled-racing team, "something could happen," Auriemma says. "But no one could envision this happening. Ever."
"This," of course, is the sustained whoopee of the program. "I'm sure kids today have fun, but now, if they don't get to the Final Four, the entire state is in mourning," says Davis.
"The pressure he lives with on a daily basis, I can't even imagine," Pattyson says of her old coach.