Geno Auriemma after latest UConn women's basketball loss: 'Nothing that this team does surprises me'

HARTFORD — Geno Auriemma had walked slowly off the XL Center court, further into a true understanding for what his UConn women’s basketball team actually is, deeper into a 2023 reality that pulled his thoughts backwards a few decades.

It was the late 1980s and early 1990s when Auriemma would coach teams he wasn’t quite sure about on a given night, when something like Tuesday’s 69-64 loss to St. John’s at the XL Center was less than shocking.

“It's fun, right?” Auriemma said toward the end of a we-are-what-we-are press conference. “If we hadn't done what we've done the last 150 years, this would be like normal behavior. We've lived in this world, right?”

He started counting the years aloud — “85, 86, 87” and on … all those seasons before his program, and the sport, changed with that first undefeated national championship run in 1995.

“We lived in that world for a long time,” he said. “Didn’t know I'd go back.”

But here the Huskies are with March fast approaching, a period typically of ramp-up and refinement this time a walk through darkness in that anything is possible — including losses in games that, for so long, were taken for granted.

UConn is now involved in one tug-o-war after another, winning some and losing others, resembling a group of players with boundless potential one game and something very different the next. That is not ideal any time, much less with two regular season games remaining.

“Nothing that this team does surprises me,” Auriemma said. “No matter how good we play, I'm not surprised. Because we can. No matter how bad we look, I'm not surprised. Because we can. There you have it.

“At this time of year, nothing's fixable. You are what you are. Because if it could be fixed it would have been fixed already. So you are what you are. And this is who we are.”

The Huskies were put in their place Tuesday, not just because they are missing key players. And their place is, until proven otherwise, in an area of unpredictability.   

UConn, which has played eight consecutive games decided by 10 points or fewer, was coming off a solid showing Saturday at Villanova, a victory that followed nail-biters over Creighton and Georgetown and a loss to Marquette.

St. John’s (20-7) entered on the NCAA bubble and bounced off of it with authority. The Red Storm looked more interested and more invested, meeting a moment of their own desperation with their first victory over UConn since their own coach, Joe Tartamella, was a young assistant with a head full of hair.

That was in 2012. Tartamella became head coach months later. After he made it through the handshake line Tuesday night he put his hands atop his head, exhaling, the moment surreal.

“Any game like this, or of this magnitude, you’re watching for that clock to hit zero,” said Tartamella, on the St. John’s staff since 2005. “I was just checking to make sure I still had two hairs on my head because I've lost a lot of it over 11 years, as my team tells me. But when you look at that scoreboard and zeroes are across the board and you've gotten the win and accomplished something that you set out to do, that you knew was going to be a difficult task, I had to soak it in for a second.”

UConn is ranked No. 4, 24-5 overall and still in the Big East driver’s seat at 16-2, one game ahead of Villanova. A No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed is still possible, as is added production in the return of Azzi Fudd, whose latest absence with a knee injury has now stretched past a month, or the return to form of Caroline Ducharme. Her own extended absence over, Ducharme was 1-for-11 from the field Tuesday.

The Huskies opened the second half on a 13-0 run to take an eight-point lead but were otherwise flat. Fatigue has to be playing into the inconsistency. Ducharme was the only player off the bench to check in for more than two minutes. But there was on Tuesday, and has been at several points since the New Year, something missing other than capable bodies.

“St. John's, from the opening tip, played like their life depends on every game for the rest of the season,” Auriemma said. “It would have been a sin if they lost that game, to be honest with you. Because they played so well and so hard. They played like they were the better team, and they were.”

If UConn’s ranking and reputation and both teams’ records could have been erased from memory before the tip, leaving only the eye test to determine who was who and what was what, one would have guessed that St. John’s, not the Huskies, was the team of such high expectations.  

The Huskies shot 4-for-14 in the first quarter, 5-for-15 in the second, 7-for-17 in the third, 6-for-16 in the fourth. That’s 22-for-62, total, 35.5 percent. St. John’s was only slightly better (36.5 percent) had a 42-37 rebounding edge and a game-changing player in forward Danielle Patterson, a reserve.

“Each team got what they deserve, 100 percent,” Auriemma said.

Asked if he was concerned about his players’ approach to games, Auriemma said, “No.  It's who they are. That's the down side of playing at UConn for some kids. You have to show up every night and bring it. Not everybody is capable of doing that. It's just reality right now.”

There was a long pause, one of several in Auriemma’s 20-minute press conference. There was a box score on the table in front of him.

“Sometimes you can look at stats and try to rationalize whatever you want,” Auriemma said. “But I think it goes beyond that.”

There was another long pause.

“St. John's bench scored 29 points,” Auriemma said. “That's a stat.”

He added, “There's a point in time now, this late in the season, where you have to really find something else inside you because your tank is running dry, almost. You've got to really, really, mentally get yourself in a place where you can still function. You can say, well, you did it Saturday. We did it against Creighton. But we didn't do it tonight. And you'd say, well, how would you explain that? I think that's probably normal. Because in a normal world you would also do what Joe did. You would go to your bench and some guys would come off the bench and would pick up some guys who weren't playing good who are starters. We don't have that, right now.”

So UConn lost, out-hustled and out-performed by a pretty good team that played great.

This is how the rest of the college basketball world has been living for quite some time.

“Let's not confuse the issue,” Auriemma said. “St. John's played about as well as I've seen a team play against us. And there were a lot of chances where they could have given us the game by making mistakes they didn't make, by missing shots they didn't miss, by not getting the loose balls that they did get. So an unfortunate situation here is, whenever this happens, it's ‘UConn loses, why?’, not “St. John's won, why?’ … We could have sucked and they still would have lost if they didn't play as well as they did.”

Auriemma said his team played like one that felt entitled to the Big East championship.

Meanwhile, sixth-ranked Iowa was getting throttled by No. 7 Maryland, a 96-68 loss.

Most teams have issues. UConn is among them. March is just about upon us. Anything — anything — is possible.

“Some things are complicated,” Auriemma said. “This isn’t very complicated. It's, you play well and you have a chance to win the game. You play as hard and you're as competitive as the other team, you have a chance to win the game. And there were long stretches where we were. And there were too many where we weren't.”