Everyone has their favorite sports memories. They might be memories of being a player, coach, or spectator. I’ll never forget watching with my dad and brothers, as the Green Bay Packers won their first two Super Bowls. Another thrill was watching my son Dan play football in middle school. He was the team’s wide receiver, safety, and punter, and in his spare time, returned kickoffs and punts. They didn’t win many games, but it sure was fun cheering them on. As happens sometimes, Dan tore his ACL twice in eighth grade, ending my hopes for his professional career. I don’t think Dan had really worried much about that.
Rachel and I had a special sports experience recently that I would like to share. For almost a decade, we have been watching the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team when we could catch them on television. Their program has earned a reputation of being among the best in the history of college sports. As I write this, the UConn head coach, Geno Auriemma, has a record of 1055 wins and 138 losses in his 34 seasons at UConn. He holds the records for the most national championships (11) and most undefeated seasons (6) of any college coach.
For the last four years, we have felt a special connection with the team. While working in St. Louis for SSM Health, Rachel hired and supervised a medical practice director named, Sarah Collier. Sarah’s daughter, Napheesa had been the Missouri girl’s basketball player-of-the-year for 2013, 2014, and 2015. She had been recruited by UConn and was about to start her freshman season. For the last four years, we have enjoyed watching Napheesa develop into one of the best players in the country and one of the team’s leaders. Here are a few of her accomplishments.
* 5th on UConn’s all-time scoring list with over 2200 points
* 5th on UConn’s all-time rebounding list with over 1000 rebounds
* To date, a career record at UConn of 138 wins and 4 losses, playing in all games
* Semifinalist for the 2019 Naismith national player-of-the-year award
A few weeks ago, I read in the paper that UConn would be playing their last regular season game in Tampa at the beginning of March. It would be an American Athletic Conference game against the University of South Florida. UConn joined the conference six years ago, and their conference record is 102-0. We had watched UConn play USF earlier in the season, and USF was a competitive team. Many of their players had been recruited from foreign countries. The roster included players from Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and even three from Latvia.
Rachel contacted Sarah and asked if she and her husband would be attending the game. Sarah replied that they were going to wait and see if the girls made it to the NCAA Final Four that would also be played in Tampa in a few weeks. Sarah did offer that Napheesa could arrange for us to receive “player’s family and guest tickets”. We would be able to sit with other player’s families and guests, behind the UConn bench.
On the day of the game, we made the one-hour drive from Sarasota to Tampa, arriving a few hours before the 7:00 game. We checked into our hotel near the USF campus. We walked about a mile to the Yuengling Center, a spacious, dome structure in the center of campus. We were the first in line at the will-call window for player’s family and friends. We were joined by two older gentlemen wearing UConn sweatshirts. They asked which player we were with and we proudly told them that we were guests of Napheesa. One of the men told us that his daughter was Shea Ralph, one of UConn’s assistant coaches. Over the next twenty minutes we learned all about Shea’s basketball accomplishments. She had been the USA Today national player-of-the-year in high school. She played her college ball at UConn and was the captain of the 2000 national championship team. Shea had been an assistant coach under Geno for the last eleven years.
As promised, our seats were behind the UConn bench, six rows up from courtside. Everyone around us was dressed in UConn navy blue. We laughed that most looked to be grandparent-aged rather than parent-aged. This was Florida, after all. It was fun to watch the players warm up. We were disappointed to see that one of the two seniors, Katie Lou Samuelson, was not dressed for the game. She had experienced back spasms following a collision with another player in her last game. At least she was there with her teammates, providing encouragement.
The game started in an unusual way. I had asked Rachel to try to take a picture of Napheesa jumping for the opening tip-off. As we watched, Napheesa got in her stance to jump for the toss, but when the ball went up, only the USF player left the ground. Napheesa just watched. A USF player caught the ball and ran down for an easy lay-up. The UConn players seemed to be moving in slow motion. The fans around us seemed confused, and some were complaining about the lackadaisical defense. A moment later, Crystal Dangerfield, a UConn guard, dribbled the length of the court and made an uncontested lay-up. This time, the USF players seemed to be standing around watching.
We learned later that Geno Auriemma and USF’s coach, Jose Fernandez had conspired to arrange a final basket for a sidelined USF senior. Laura Ferreira had been diagnosed with a heart rhythm disorder in January, a career ending event. She scored the final basket of her USF career on Senior Night, the final home game of the season. Since both teams scored uncontested baskets, the game would commence on an even basis.
The game was fun to watch, with many lead changes. UConn started slowly and was down by as many as eleven points in the first half. The USF fans were loud and enthusiastic, watching their Bulls take the lead from the number two team in the country. At the half UConn was behind by five points.
Sitting close to the team afforded an interesting view of the game. I was struck by the way the players and coaches communicated with each other. During time-outs, players huddled around Geno, who sat in the center of the circle on a folding chair. With a clipboard in his hand, he went over plays and strategies. He remained calm, but focused. During play, he sometimes showed frustration when a player missed an easy basket, or a referee called a foul that he didn’t see. Most of the time, frustration was directed at the other coaches, not the players. Once, after a questionable call, Geno walked down the bench, past all of the players and coaches. He stood alone, staring away from the game. He looked like he was trying to keep his emotions in check.
Emotional support and motivation came more from the players than the coaches. Player huddles happened not just between quarters, but at most every break in play. Older, more experienced players coached the younger players. The younger players were attentive and appeared eager for the guidance. Katie Lou Samuelson took on the role of a player/coach. She was the clear leader in the player huddles, sometimes with the starting five and sometimes with the entire team. She frequently jumped out of her chair to yell instructions. The referees had to cue her a few times to sit back down.
Despite shooting only 37% from the floor and 76% from the free throw line, the UConn women pulled it out at the end. A surge of 10 points in the fourth quarter by a freshman, Christyn Williams, led to a 57 to 47 win. Napheesa ended the game with 16 points and four rebounds, a so-so performance for her. I joked with Rachel that if she had made most of her field goal attempts, she would have scored at least 50 points. With Katie Lou stuck on the bench, Napheesa had a lot of weight on her shoulders.
This was the final game of the regular season, and UConn ended with a 28 and 2 record. They were ranked number two in the country going into post-season play. With Katie Lou back in the line-up, they should be in a good position going into the AAC and NCAA tournaments. If they make the final four in April, maybe Rachel and I will make a return trip to Tampa to cheer them on in the women’s college championship!