Just like that old E.F. Hutton stock brokerage TV ad that says, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen,” the same could be said of Geno Auriemma.
The UConn coach in his 36th season leading the Huskies’ program, has won 11 national titles in his 21 Final Four trips. His program is in the midst of a 13-year Final Four run. The Huskies are 28-1 this season after winning 18 straight games.
Auriemma also has three Olympic gold medals as Team USA’s coach in 2000, 2012 and 2016.
He had some captivating comments about Arizona’s program on Wednesday during a Zoom press conference, ahead of his team’s Final Four matchup with the Wildcats (20-5) on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
Adia Barnes “tough, smart”
Auriemma was asked about coaching against Arizona coach Adia Barnes as a player in the 1998 Sweet 16, a game in which the Huskies pulled away late for a 74-57 win at Dayton, Ohio. Barnes led the Wildcats with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
“Clearly, she was an impossible matchup for anybody at any level,” Auriemma said of Barnes, who at 5-foot-11 was athletic enough to extend to the perimeter and her strength enabled her to handle the post.
“You couldn’t guard her with a guard and you couldn’t guard her with a forward. She just was an absolute great basketball player — smart, really tough and skilled.”
He said the Sweet 16 matchup “was all about guarding her and trying to contain and isolate her as much as possible. She took up the focus of our of our scouting report.”
“Now you fast forward and when Adia took the job at Arizona (in 2016), women’s basketball was not even the number one women’s sport at Arizona. Softball is. So here you’re coming into this program, where women’s basketball has never been it. Their softball program is legendary, don’t get me wrong, but she has made women’s basketball at Arizona supremely important.”
Auriemma also sees Barnes, who is only 44 and vivacious, as a “coach for the future who’s having tremendous success in the present.”
“She’s what future coaches are going to be like — players that played, they were tough, they were smart, they go into the game and they understand it and manage the game, they interact with their players in a way that’s just really, really impressive. I’ve gotten to know her and her family and I couldn’t be happier for any individual to see them in the Final Four.”
Aari McDonald = Allen Iverson
Auriemma’s assistant Jamelle Elliott is scouting Arizona ahead of Friday’s game. Auriemma said he asked Elliott about how the Huskies might try to defend McDonald.
“She said, ‘I don’t know Coach. We’re playing against Allen Iverson.’” Auriemma said.
“I’m going to have to call some of my old coaching buddies in the old Big East and ask them, ‘How do you prepare for Allen Iverson?’”
McDonald, who is listed at 5-foot-6, is the top two-way threat in the country.
She is a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and is the top scorer this season remaining in the NCAA Tournament at 20.3 points per game. She will be the Arizona record-holder for career scoring average, currently at 21.7 points per game.
She is only seven points shy of becoming Arizona’s third 2,000-point scorer even through her career has spanned only three years after transferring from Washington.
“You get her in that pick and roll, and then she’s just sneaky and tricky and talented, she knows every ins and outs of how to run that,” Auriemma said. “She’s fearless as an offensive player. She’s a first-team All-American defensive player.”
Although UConn has faced Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Baylor’s DiDi Richards, Auriemma said his coaching staff believes McDonald is “probably the most dominant guard we will have played against this year.”
Arizona’s press a concern
Auriemma is leery of Arizona’s full-court press that generally wreaks havoc by causing turnovers leading to high-percentage shots on the other end.
He was asked how a team beats a press, especially one like Barnes coaches at Arizona. He mentioned the uncertainty of guard Nika Muhl, who has been out the last two games in the NCAA Tournament with a high ankle sprain, is a concern facing Arizona’s full-court press.
“The best defensive team we’ve played this year is Baylor (in the Elite Eight) — bar none,” Auriemma said. “Arizona is a different kind of defensive team. They do it a little bit differently. I think the two best defenses that we’ve seen, we’ve played one of them already and that was Monday night (against Baylor in a 69-67 win), and we’re getting ready to play another one on Friday.”
“How do you beat a fullcourt press? You score,” Auriemma added. “I’ve always said when a team presses, you score and you score and you score. What are they gonna do press harder? I don’t know.
“When a team presses you and you don’t score and you turn it over and you don’t score and you turn it over, then you know what they do? They press harder and then you get blown out. There you have it.”
Auriemma made note that in addition to Arizona’s stringent defense, the Wildcats are shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament.
“They compete exceptionally hard,” he said. “Defensively, they are relentless. They get contributions from the whole team. When you have that kind of base to work with, than anything’s possible.
“They shoot it just well enough. Lately, in the NCAA tournament, they’ve shot it great. I think that Adia has got this kind of temperament (showed his hand straight) — you know, so she’s going to keep them level. They’re not going to be afraid of the moment and I don’t think they’re going to be wacked out over the moment. I think they’ve got a lot going for them. … I could think of a lot of other teams I’d rather be playing Friday night.”
Former Arizona player Tee Tee Starks a UConn grad assistant
Tee Tee Starks would have played on Arizona’s NCAA Tournament team last year if COVID-19 did not wreck that plan. Now, she will coach against the Wildcats as a graduate assistant under Auriemma.
“Obviously, Tee has friends there, she knows the the layout, she knows obviously how things go, but I don’t know that these are some secret war plans that we have access to that are going to put us over the hump,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think that’s how this goes.”
“Tee’s a great young lady. She she came here to learn. She came here because she wants to coach. She came here to be a part of all this. She’s worked exceptionally hard … I couldn’t be happier, really. I think she’s done a magnificent job.”
Starks was a Big 12 All-Academic first-team selection at Iowa State before transferring to Arizona. She made the 2020 Pac-12 Winter Academic Honor Roll.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.