Women's March Madness preview: Geno Auriemma and UConn face Dawn Staley and South Carolina

ALBANY, N.Y. — When Connecticut and South Carolina oppose each other in the Albany Regional championship of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Monday night at the Times Union Center, their two Hall of Fame coaches, bred in Philadelphia, will be in reverse roles.

Dawn Staley’s second-seeded Gamecocks (29-6) are the defending NCAA champions, but Geno Auriemma’s top-seeded Huskies (35-0) are the heavy favorites with a record 11 national titles under their belts.

They are also a perfect 6-0 against the Gamecocks. Five of the losses are on Staley’s watch, including this year’s 83-58 wipeout in Columbia.

South Carolina senior A’ja Wilson is the consensus national player of the year and the likely top pick in next month’s WNBA draft, but UConn is simply loaded with talented players.

“I think he’s done a great job owning women’s basketball,” Staley said of Auriemma. “Hopefully we can cut us a slice Monday night.”

Staley is the Olympic women’s coach after having been one of Auriemma’s USA assistants during the most recent gold medal run in Brazil in 2016.

They are also connected through Staley’s friend and former Virginia teammate Tonya Cardoza, the Temple coach who succeeded Staley a decade ago after serving 14 seasons at UConn under Auriemma.

“You hear stories about Geno, how he has a great basketball mind for the game,” Staley said. “I think there’s great opportunities to learn from him. But at the same time, that’s his style.”

Auriemma spoke of Staley’s growth after she took the Temple job in 2000 near her North Philadelphia home with no previous coaching experience.

“Dawn was smart enough to do it at a place where you’re not going to be scrutinized every day. She was probably learning to coach the whole time she played, you know, when you play a lot of basketball,” he said.

“She did it the right way. She went to a place to learn how to coach, and then when the opportunity came to coach at a place where you can win the national championship, she’s made the most of it.”

The winner moves on to this weekend’s Women’s Final Four on Friday and Sunday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
A year ago, Connecticut suffered an all-time upset, losing to Mississippi State in overtime in the national semifinals, ending a record 111-game winning streak.

When asked of the reaction if the Huskies fall short in two straight seasons, Auriemma, referencing UConn’s fan base, quipped, “I’ll probably have to move from my house, we’ll be like 70-2 and somebody will be out to get me.

“If we don’t win tomorrow night, there’s no even going back to Connecticut,” he added. “But we created it. I want to sit down with [Alabama football coach] Nick Saban and say, ‘How the hell do you do this?’ It’s a different world. It’s a different world.”