UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma along with seniors Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley met with the media at the Final Four in Nashville, TN on Saturday afternoon.
Here’s what they had to say:
COACH AURIEMMA: It’s one of those things that you try to figure out something different to say every time you come up here, and it always comes back to the same things.
Just two games left in the season. There’s four teams left. Trying to play on Sunday and Tuesday and for us to be one of those four teams is obviously the goal every year.
And Bria and Stefanie fortunate enough to be here four years in a row and that’s pretty special for the two of them and I want to make sure that we, as coaches and players, do everything that we can to make sure that this weekend goes the way it deserves to go for these two. So that’s kind of my focus this weekend.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take questions for the student‑athletes, first, please. Raise your hands and state your name and affiliation and address the specific student‑athlete. Anything for the student‑athletes? We’ll take one right here.
Q. Stefanie, I’m curious, after watching film what do you think the best way to defend Chiney on the interior?
STEFANIE DOLSON: I think for us, we don’t ever look at how to defend a certain person. We’re really looking at the whole team. We’re making sure we’re concentrating on making everything they do difficult, making sure every shot they take is a tough shot. We rebound the ball because obviously Chiney is an extremely good rebounder. We have to take away her strengths and their team’s strength and worry about executing on offense and defense.
Q. For both of you, does it ever get old? This is your fourth trip. Is it more anticipation, excitement, or pressure to finish this off sort the UConn way?
BRIA HARTLEY: I think anytime you’re able to compete for a National Championship or make it to the last four teams, it’s a lot of excitement. I think we’ve worked hard all year. And we want to get to this moment. So I think we’re all excited. We’re eager to go out there and play. So we’re going to make sure we have lots of energy and lots of intensity when we step on that court.
STEFANIE DOLSON: Yeah, it definitely doesn’t get old. Like Coach said, we’re fortunate to be able to be here four years in a row. It’s something that we have never taken for granted. And like Bria said, we’re excited to be here and excited to get out and play. The first two days of being here is kind of all the media stuff, the fun stuff.
But we’ve gotta get down to business, and we’re just excited for the game tomorrow.
THE MODERATOR: Anything else for the student‑athletes? Down here.
Q. Stefanie, everybody probably in this audience and basketball fans are talking about UConn/Notre Dame battle of the blah, blah, blah. How do you tune that out when you’ve done so much, won by 35 points a game?
STEFANIE DOLSON: It’s pretty easy. We just don’t pay attention to it. Obviously like you said, there’s a lot of hype between the whole two undefeated teams going into the Final Four and the National Championship game, but for us, we don’t think about that. We take it game by game. We always have. It’s something we emphasize during the season. And we go into the tournament the same way. We’re just looking forward to the Stanford game right now, preparing for that, and not really focusing on what’s going on around us.
Q. For both Bria and Stefanie. How would you say that Stanford has improved since the last time you saw them? And how do you think your team has improved since that second game of the season?
THE MODERATOR: Do you want to take it first, Bria?
BRIA HARTLEY: I think both teams have improved a lot. When we played them, it was so early in the season. So there’s a bunch of things that the team really needs to improve on. And you look at their 3‑point shooters, they have really good guards. They’re really good at attacking and getting in the paint. I mean, you have All‑American post player in Chiney, and she’s able to create for her team. They’ve improved in running their offense and everyone’s a lot more in sync. For us, it’s the same thing.
We’ve been running around offensively playing together for a few months now, so everything’s a lot more crisp. And when we go out there, we have to make sure it’s going to be who comes out there, executes each play better. And at this point in the season everyone has to step up. And this is when great players make great plays. So it’s going to be really tough competition out there.
STEFANIE DOLSON: She said it all. Both teams have definitely gotten better. I think at the beginning of the season, you’re finding your identity as a team. I think both teams are at that point. I think just each team has had individuals who have just gotten better as the year’s gone on.
Like Bri said, it’s going to come down to executing offense and defense better and then just outworking the other team. Obviously it’s Final Four game. No one wants to lose.
I think both teams are going to go in there ready to play.
THE MODERATOR: Question over on this side.
Q. Stefanie, what was it about last year’s run in the tournament that maybe springboarded this team to how good you guys have done this year?
STEFANIE DOLSON: I’d say Breanna Stewart was a big part of that, obviously. She had a tough year last year, then just made an incredible run for the NCAA Tournament last year. And I think with her and Bria kind of gaining more confidence, just getting better throughout this summer. Having the two of them coming into this year just started us off better, and I don’t know. Just set the tone for the year.
From there on out everybody got better individually. We picked each other up as the year went on. Our chemistry grew stronger and stronger as we played more together. And we’re at the point that we are now where I think we just play extremely well together.
THE MODERATOR: Time for one more question for the student‑athletes. Back here. Sorry. Over here.
Q. Bria, I want to give you a chance to brag on Stef a little bit here. Can you tell me, as you look at Notre Dame, what they’re going through right now, missing Achonwa, is it unfathomable to think about what it would be like to be here without Stefanie and what she’s meant to this team and this run?
BRIA HARTLEY: Absolutely. Stef does so much for our team. Our offense runs a lot better when she’s out there on the floor for us. When we’re in the offense and she’s in the middle, she sees a lot of things. She’s a great playmaker, and I think sometimes people always pay attention to her posting up and her presence in the post, but the way she’s able to pass the ball and screen really creates offense for other players.
I mean, it’s hard to find that. And I think we always say how Stef’s the best screener on the team. People don’t always pay attention to that, but that’s a big part of your team and that helps get a lot of your teammates open. And there’s so many things she does that go unnoticed. She knows that we notice it and we really appreciate everything she’s done for us.
STEFANIE DOLSON: They definitely notice it. They tell me. They’re great teammates.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, ladies. We’ll dismiss them back to the locker room. They’ll be available until 3:20. Continue with questions for Coach Auriemma.
Q. I think you talked during the teleconference about being able to win games in a number of different ways. Curious, where does the team defense for this team rank in those factors?
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah, I thought last year we had one of the best defenders in the country in Kelly Faris, and we were able to do a lot of things with her. We don’t have anybody like that this year. So it’s had to be more of a team‑oriented thing.
And everyone‑‑ everyone on our team knows that we can’t afford to make a lot of mistakes on the defensive end. We can’t get ourselves in foul trouble. We can’t give up easy buckets. So I think Kelly graduating and the fact that we know we don’t have anybody like that has made us a really, really good defensive team.
People have a hard time scoring against us, generally speaking. We block a lot of shots. The best way to keep people from scoring is don’t let the ball ever get to the rim. If the ball gets to the rim, it’s got a 50/50 shot going in. Right? If it never gets to the rim, that’s pretty good defense. That’s been a big part of our defense this year.
THE MODERATOR: Question from Michel.
Q. Geno, you and Stanford have played a lot over the past three years. What are the two or three things that you know are either going to happen or you are going to have to do when you go up against Tara and their staff?
COACH AURIEMMA: Well, they’re going to be really well prepared. They’re going to have a game plan. And you’ll be able to tell right away what their plan is. And you’ve got to be able to make the adjustments if you can. If you can’t, then you’re going to be in big trouble.
You also know that, same as it was when they had Neka, that Chiney is going to be a huge factor around the basket on both ends of the floor, offense and defense. And I don’t know that there’s anybody in the country individually that can guard her.
So you know you’re going to have to deal with that somehow or another. And they’re going to take a ton of 3s. That’s always been the case and that will be the case on Sunday. And how well we’re able to defend that is going to go a long way towards who wins the game.
THE MODERATOR: Question here from Richard.
Q. Geno, understanding that it’s very hard to compare teams of different years and players, Kelly has obviously graduated, but where is this team at this point of the year heading into the semifinal game versus where last year’s team was heading into the same point, the semifinal game?
COACH AURIEMMA: I think mentally for whatever reason, we didn’t have any reason to be, but we came in last year mentally in a pretty good place. We didn’t win the regular season, the Big East. We didn’t win the Big East championship tournament. And yet I think we came into the Final Four expecting to win, even though I don’t think anybody else expected us to win.
This year, there’s been so much hype surrounding the team because of what happened in last year’s tournament and we’re undefeated. I don’t know that we’re in the same place, because you can’t be, you know. But I think this team, for whatever it’s worth, I don’t know what it’s going to be tomorrow, but the team’s a lot more confident and sure of itself than last year’s team, last year I think we were determined but there was still a little bit of doubt. And I get the feeling from this particular team that there isn’t any doubt in their mind that we’re the best team here.
Whether or not that plays out, I don’t know. But right now, that’s the mindset that I see.
THE MODERATOR: Question back there.
Q. After two slow starts in Lincoln last week, have you placed any extra emphasis on starting strong tomorrow night?
COACH AURIEMMA: Yeah. I’m probably going to have to mention that in the pregame speech. Let’s start strong. I guess last week saying let’s start [Bleep] didn’t work too well.
I don’t think we, coaches, fans, everybody, I don’t think we realized how hard it is to make shots in the Sweet 16 and the Final Four. Every time the ball leaves your hand, it’s not the same as playing in January and February.
And if you don’t make the first couple, it gets even harder to make them.
And especially when you’re used to making them and all of a sudden you shoot the ball poorly like we did, both of those games in the beginning, it starts to become contagious.
I’m a huge baseball fan. And guy throws a no‑hitter for three or four innings, going to be hard to get any hits the next four or five innings. And shooting’s the same way. Start the game. Couple guys knock in a couple of 3s right away, get up 10‑0 and everybody thinks the basket is as big as the ocean.
So last time we played Stanford in November, I think the score was 2‑2 the first seven minutes of the game. So I’m going to tell them before the game starts.
Q. Geno, after the beginning of the season, your conference is a little bit down. The only really tough team you had was Louisville several times. Next year it’s going to be Louisville and Rutgers going. It could be an even easier conference. Are you at all concerned that‑‑ obviously this team has gained a lot of confidence from it, but is there an opposite side of that that they don’t really know what it’s like to be challenged when they come to a situation like this?
COACH AURIEMMA: I don’t believe that that’s the case this year. I can’t speak for what might happen next year. But the three teams that are here besides us, we beat Maryland at Maryland and we beat Stanford at home. And we beat Texas A&M. And we won at Duke. And we beat Louisville three times. And we won at Baylor. And we won at Penn State.
I think this team thinks they can win anywhere, anytime against anybody. Next year, I don’t know. But we’ve been in this situation before. Remember in 1995, before the Big East really became the best basketball conference in the country, that year, two teams from the Big East went to the NCAA Tournament. Two out of, I want to say, nine or ten, maybe 12. I’m not sure how many were in the league back then. 12. So I think we had two teams go in 1995. That’s how bad the league was.
And we were undefeated, won the National Championship. All we heard was we were the bet. Stanford played in the Pac‑12. Tennessee was there. Georgia was there. And how tough the Southeast Conference was and how tough the Pac‑12 was and how every league in the country’s great and we played in the Big East, that’s what they called it. We beat Stanford by 30 in the semifinals and then we beat Tennessee for a National Championship.
So if you have the right kind of players and you prepare properly, I don’t know. I have a lot of respect for everybody. But I respect certain teams. I don’t respect conferences. A lot of teams playing in big time conferences that haven’t won a damn thing in their careers. So I’d rather be in our conference and win them all instead of being in another conference.
THE MODERATOR: Time for a couple more. We’ll take one right here. Michel.
Q. Geno, Brenda said that Stanford and Maryland might be like extras in the Miss America competition. Tara at one point this week I think said maybe they feel they’re a little bit like the JV team. If they’re feeling that way, does that‑‑ and they’re motivated by that, do you think that that ends up being relevant at all in anything that happens tomorrow?
COACH AURIEMMA: No. I really don’t. At this time of year, the teams that play the best basketball are the teams that are going to win. And whatever motivation you want to use only works if the other team doesn’t play well. So if we play poorly against Stanford and Stanford plays well and they win, it won’t be because they were motivated by being a JV team. It will be just because they played better. And the same goes for Maryland.
There’s an awful lot of emotion on every team going into the weekend. But after about five, six, seven minutes, maybe, all those things go away and it’s just play basketball. All four teams are capable of winning a National Championship. That’s the beauty of the Final Four. You don’t have to win three out of five. You don’t have to win four out of seven. Not best out of three. All you gotta do is play really well two nights and you can win a National Championship. And all four teams that are here are capable of doing that because they’ve already done that.
So I don’t think they should feel like they’re a JV team. I don’t think they should‑‑ anybody should feel like they’re the extras at the Miss America pageant. I’ve never won any pageants.
Q. Coach, somebody just looked at the box scores and your team seems automatic this year, but I know you guys aren’t robots. From your close vantage point to the team, could you explain the humanity of you guys or something like that?
COACH AURIEMMA: We have five starters that are really good offensive players. But they all have their weaknesses. All five of them. They’re not superhuman. They’re not infallible.
If we had enough time and I was inclined to do that, I would list five things about each five starters that I hate that I wish I could fix between now and tomorrow night.
The key is you’re not going to know what they are and neither is the other team because we’re going to try to hide it as best we can. But we all have them. We all have them.
What we’re good at, we’re really good at. Really, really good at it. What we’re not good at is we try to pretend like we are because we don’t want you to see it. And that’s kind of our philosophy. Let’s just be really great at what we’re really good at and hope they don’t find out what we’re bad at.
THE MODERATOR: Question in the back.
Q. Coach, when you get to UConn, no tradition. Haven’t been winning. Not exactly in a metropolis. How did you sell‑‑
COACH AURIEMMA: It is now. We have more stores than just one store. It used to be called store. Lou Holtz’s great line. Used to be called store. Then they opened another one. Now it’s called Storrs.
Q. How did you sell the kids on you and the belief that you can do something great here with this program?
COACH AURIEMMA: In the beginning, greatness had nothing to do with it. There was no such thing as talking about being great back in the early years,’85,’86,’87. So what we did was we identified who were the next level players that the schools that we were trying to beat down the road were not going to recruit. So from an area of let’s say Boston to Pittsburgh to Washington DC, we had tried to identify in that area who were the best players that are not going to be recruited by the best schools in basketball, who are the next level down. Maybe two levels down.
Let’s go recruit those guys. Let’s convince them that they can come here and be part of something, and a bunch of them bought it. And then when they got there, you know, we coached them pretty good.
They got a little bit better. We started winning a couple of games. And then we started getting a little bit better player. And then when we won a National Championship in 1995, I thought, you know, we only have two kids on our team that were recruited by everybody. Rebecca Lobo and Nykesha Sales. Everybody else was like, those other kids we could go undefeated, win a National Championship with two players on our team that a lot of schools wanted. We start getting a bunch of those guys, we’re going to be really good. That’s when we started talking about being great.
But by that time we had already built a pretty good program so it wasn’t hard to convince them to play there.
But in the beginning we could never get great players to come play at Connecticut. That would have just been impossible. As a matter of fact, when I got the job at Connecticut. There was a kid playing in Boston called Tonya Cardoza, and she was one of the best players in the country. I was recruiting her when I was at Virginia. But when I took the Connecticut job, I didn’t recruit her, because why waste my time recruiting her? She’s not going to come to Connecticut. Eventually she came, ten years later, as an assistant coach, but we didn’t waste time recruiting kids we knew we couldn’t get.
Now, we haven’t changed that much. We still don’t waste time trying to recruit kids we know we can’t get. So a little bit has changed but not a whole lot. And Storrs has changed. The university has changed. It’s 1985, there’s absolutely no comparison between the school, the basketball program, everything. It’s like night and day. It’s like night and day.
Here are the Stanford Cardinal Final Four Pregame Quotes.
quotes courtesy of asap sports
photo credit: john woike – hartford courant