ALBANY, N.Y. — When the NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket was announced almost two weeks ago, the pairings in the Albany Regional being played here at the Times Union Center this weekend created the instant anticipation of a showdown between the Philly-bred Hall of Fame coaches — Geno Auriemma and his top-seeded and unbeaten Connecticut Huskies (34-0) and Dawn Staley and her defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks (28-6).
That discussion, however, was transformed into the proverbial elephant in the room at Friday’s interview sessions.
There’s a not-so-small matter of first things first at the Sweet 16 level, which means the current USA Olympic coach in Staley has to end the Cinderella run of 11th-seeded Buffalo (29-5) in Saturday’s opener before the past USA Olympic coach in Auriemma has to handle fifth-seeded Duke (24-8) in the second game.
Nonetheless, the success and personalities of the two were topics from both their squads and respective opponents.
Asked about Staley, Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack, whose team is the lone mid-major here coming out of the Mid-American Conference, said: “Dawn has always been really serious.
“I know she’s a fighter. I know she’s a ferocious competitor and winner. When you’re that way all the time, I might have never saw her laughing. I just saw her compete and trying to win.”
Yet, Gamecocks senior star A’ja Wilson, the consensus national player of the year, said, “Coach Staley’s a coach you can talk to her about everything, and that’s what I really enjoy about her. She’s like my mom away from my mom, honestly.
“We argue a lot. We probably argue more than we have fun. I’m glad she sees the fun part more.”
As for Auriemma, his Huskies are all over the record books, highlighted by the 11 NCAA championships, a 111-game win streak, and a 25th straight Sweet 16 appearance.
“I mean, I am surprised,” Auriemma quipped on the annual deep run. “After all, we have the best players. Every all-American that’s ever played high school basketball has come to Connecticut, they don’t go play anywhere else. So we’re just fortunate there’s no competition out there for us.
“But it isn’t until somebody reminds you and says how long you guys have done this and you just look back and — yeah. You have to think at some point in 25 years you would stumble once or twice.”
One storyline involving the game with Duke is that UConn’s Azura Stevens is a transfer from the Blue Devils.
That didn’t stop coach Joanne P. McCallie from praising the Huskie.
“I think I’m 1-9 or something pathetic like that,” she said. “I would never try to run with them. They’re basically an WNBA team. Sometimes I’m wondering if they’re getting ready for that season, the way they played this year.
“South Carolina has recently been so fabulous, they won their title, and it’s just amazing what they’ve done,” McCallie added. “Of course, Connecticut’s the best there’s ever been.”