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Jerry Sullivan: UConn's excellence lifts the women's game

ALBANY – When Buffalo and Central Michigan, a couple of lowly No. 11 seeds from the Mid-American Conference, both won two games to reach the Sweet 16, Geno Auriemma couldn't help feeling a glow of satisfaction.

"I think that's the best thing that ever happened," the legendary Connecticut head coach said.

Maybe Auriemma hadn't ruined women's basketball, after all. That's been a popular knock on the UConn coach, who has won 11 national championships and more than 88 percent of his games in 33 years at Storrs.

The Huskies win too often, and far too handily. They have won all 34 of their games this season, by an average margin of 38 points. That's been typical in recent years. The Huskies have a dozen wins by 50 points or more, including a 140-52 embarrassment of St. Francis in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last week.

You do wonder how much joy the UConn players can get when they rarely experience the competitive jolt of a close game, when many of their greatest challenges occur in practice. But bad for the sport? Those mid-majors from the MAC would suggest that the lesser programs are getting better, and the women's game is thriving.

"No, we haven't ruined it," Auriemma said Friday afternoon at the Times Union Center, where UConn meets Duke in Saturday's second regional semifinal.

Maybe by setting such a high and seemingly unreachable standard – as UCLA did for the men's game 40 years ago – UConn is actually lifting the other programs.

"I would like to think so," Auriemma said as he was ushered down a hallway to an ESPN interview. "I saw something recently that said this is just the way things go in sports. Name me one sport that hasn't had a scenario like we're going through right now.

"Whether it was UCLA, whether it was the Yankees, whether it was the Celtics, whether it was the Canadiens, you know? There isn't a sport that hasn't experienced this kind of era that we happen to be in right now."

Those were all men's teams, I reminded him. Maybe people don't know how to deal with women dominating a sport.

"Well, it's OK when it happens to a men's team," Auriemma said, "because men can do no wrong. And men are great, and men are writing about men. I'm just repeating what my wife says. But to me, the people who follow the game, who take an interest in the game, they have a pretty good perspective on what we've done for the game."

There's something to be said for setting a standard to which young females can aspire. UConn, which has had winning streaks of 90 and 111 games under Auriemma, has brought glamour and attention to the women's game. It takes time for people to catch up.

UCLA won 10 national men's titles in 12 years under John Wooden from 1964-75, including seven in a row. Their margin of victory was similar to the UConn women's team over the last decade. The men's game was still in its formative stages, as the women's game is today. Things evolve. Give it time.

"Absolutely, I would agree," said Barbara Jacobs, commissioner of women's basketball in the AAC, UConn's league. "Two 11 seeds making it as far as they are, it says that women's basketball is changing.

"It's getting better, all the way down," said Jacobs, who was head coach at Syracuse when UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack played there 30 years ago.

The people who coach and play the sport don't accuse Auriemma of ruining women's basketball. They thank him for showing what it possible, for raising the bar and raising awareness of the game at the same time.

"I don't see it as a bad thing at all," said Cierra Dillard, UB's star guard. "I think it's great for women's basketball. I look at them the same way I did when I was young, with major respect and gratitude for what they're doing.

"I think Geno has done an amazing job of bringing national attention to UConn and women's basketball, showing that we're athletes too and can have amazing games, " Dillard said. "He makes you want to become better programs, to be the next UConn."

Lest we forget, UConn didn't win the national championship last year. South Carolina won it, defeating a Mississippi State team that had ended Connecticut's 111-game winning streak – and its run of four consecutive NCAA titles – in the national semifinals.

UB faces South Carolina in the first regional semifinal at 11:30 Saturday. Coach Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist as a player, has built a national power of her own in Columbia. The Gamecocks are in their fifth straight Sweet 16 and are looking to reach a third Final Four in five seasons.

Staley and Legette-Jack, who led UB to a school-record 29 victories and the first NCAA Tournament wins in its history, are the only remaining African-American coaches in the women's field.

"She built something from nothing," Legette-Jack said of Staley. "In order for us to find our way, we have to take steps. It's a big step for sure. If we show up and do our small part, we can have success for 40 minutes."

Legette-Jack said that if UB played South Carolina 10 times, they would probably beat them once. She was playing the underdog's role to the hilt. After watching what UB did to South Florida and Florida State, beating favored teams by 23 and 21 points, you have to think the gap between UB and SC isn't all that wide.

"If you look around the country, mid-major programs are better than people think," Auriemma said. "Women's basketball mid-majors don't get any respect. On the men's side they do, but not on the women's side."

Central Michigan also rolled through its first two games as an underdog, which suggests that the MAC women's teams were badly underseeded by the selection committee. They've given the tourney an uncommon upset flavor so far.

"That's what's kind of made the men's tournament what it is, right?" Auriemma said. "Someone said the top 64 teams should be in. Then you wouldn't have Cinderella. I don't think CBS is paying the kind of money they paid to see just Duke and Syracuse, or just Kentucky and North Carolina.

"They're paying because you never know when Loyola's going to win, or when UMBC's going to win. That's the drama. That's what has made the tournament what it is."

This is generally where it gets tough. No team from a non-power conference has reached the women's Final Four since Southwest Missouri State in 2001. It's only a matter of time before it happens again.

Auriemma would love to see it. Just not here, not this weekend. Wouldn't want to ruin it for UConn.

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