- Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies are back in the Final Four for their 14th straight appearance.
- The notoriously tough Hall of Fame head coach teared up after his team’s Elite Eight win.
- WNBA star Breanna Stewart said her former coach is “getting a little bit softer” later in her career.
MINNEAPOLIS — Geno Auriemma is notorious for being one of the toughest coaches in the college game.
But if you ask one of the most accomplished players in UConn history, she’ll tell you her former coach is “getting a little bit softer” as he approaches the twilight of his career.
Breanna Stewart watched along with the rest of the sports world as the Hall of Fame head coach teared up following his Huskies’ hard-fought double-overtime win against NC State in the Elite Eight. In addition to calling the 68-year-old “softer” than she remembered, the four-time NCAA champion and three-time consensus National Player of the Year said it “hits home” to watch her college coach become emotional that way.
“We all love Coach Auriemma. We all look up to him, and he’s a mentor to all of us,” Stewart told Insider. “I know every team’s journey is not as easy as it seems [with the] ups and downs and highs and lows of the season. I’m just really happy for him to be able to get back here.”
“I know we’ve done it a lot, we’ve gone to the Final Four a lot, but it’s never easy,” she added. “And even though it looks easy, it’s not.”
This year, UConn’s path to its 14th consecutive Final Four appearance was much more winding than in years past. In addition to several COVID-related stoppages and absences, the Huskies struggled with the injury bug all winter and wound up losing an uncharacteristic five games on the season.
And just as it looked as though the majority of its roster had become available at the most opportune time, UConn big Dorka Juhasz suffered a gruesome season-ending wrist injury during the team’s Elite Eight thriller. Auriemma has half-joked that it’s “par for the course” for the Huskies to lose one of their key post players days before facing Stanford, “the longest team in the country.”
He expressed a similar, though more heartfelt, sentiment in his on-court interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe immediately following the Wolfpack game. Auriemma wiped away his tears, shook his head in disbelief, and explained that “it’s just been that kind of a year.”
“When you’re younger you think, ‘I got a million of these left in me,'” he said. “You get to a certain age, then, when you go, ‘I don’t know how many of these I have left.’ You don’t know how many opportunities you’re gonna get to be in this game.”
“It means more,” Auriemma added. “It means more because each time you do it, there’s a new set of kids that have never been there, and they came to Connecticut for a chance to play in a Final Four. And it’s just this overwhelming responsibility that you have to get them a chance. And we did. We did.”
Though UConn has been to the Final Four every tournament since 2008, the Huskies haven’t won a national championship since Stewart graduated in 2016. But the UConn legend, who won a title every year she played for Auriemma’s team, insists that the pressure for this year’s Huskies to break the dry spell — by UConn standards, anyway — is “just on the outside.”
“When they’re with the team and they’re really focused, they know what they want to do,” Stewart told Insider. “They know they want to win just like every other team. And now it’s just about going out and doing it and all of the hard work that they put in all season, the summertime, learning from the previous Final Fours.”
“They’re there to be their best and show up in the biggest moments, and this is the biggest moment,” she added.
The Huskies will play the underdog to a red-hot Stanford Cardinal squad that hasn’t lost since December in the national semifinal. Fans can follow all the action on ESPN Friday at 9:30 pm ET.