‘We are who we are’

HARTFORD — Geno Auriemma had slowly walked off the XL Center field, further into a real understanding of what his UConn women’s basketball team actually is, deeper into a 2023 reality that set his mind back a few decades.

It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Auriemma would coach teams he wasn’t entirely sure of on any given night, when something like Tuesday’s 69-64 loss to St. John’s at the XL Center wasn’t exactly shocking.

“It’s fun, isn’t it?” said Auriemma towards the end of a we are who we are press conference. “If we hadn’t done what we’ve been doing for the past 150 years, this would be normal behaviour. We’ve lived in this world, haven’t we?”

He started counting the years out loud – “85, 86, 87” and beyond… all those seasons before his program and the sport changed with those first undefeated national championships in 1995.
“We lived in that world for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going back.”
But here the Huskies are as March fast approaches, a quintessential period of ramping up and refinement, this time a walk through the darkness in that anything is possible – including losing in games that have so long been taken for granted.
Now embroiled in one tug of war after another, winning some and losing others, UConn resembles a group of players with limitless potential in one game and something completely different in the next. That’s not ideal at any point, especially with two regular season games left.
“Nothing this team does surprises me,” said Auriemma. “No matter how well we play, I’m not surprised. Because we can. No matter how bad we look, I’m not surprised. Because we can. There you have it.
“Nothing can be fixed at this time of year. You are what you are. Because if it could be fixed, it would already be fixed. So you are what you are. And this is who we are.”
The Huskies were put in place on Tuesday not just because they are missing key players. And their place, until proven otherwise, is in an area of ​​unpredictability.
UConn, which has played eight consecutive games decided by 10 points or less, had a solid showing in Villanova on Saturday, a win that followed nail-biters over Creighton and Georgetown and a loss to Marquette.
St. John’s (20-7) entered the NCAA bubble and bounced off it with authority. The Red Storm seemed more interested and more invested, experiencing a moment of their own desperation with their first victory over UConn since their own coach, Joe Tartamella, was a young assistant with a head full of hair.
That was in 2012. Tartamella became head coach months later. After getting through the handshake line on Tuesday night, he put his hands on his head and exhaled, the moment unreal.
“In any game like this, or of this size, you wait for the clock to hit zero,” said Tartamella, who has been on the St. John’s staff since 2005. “I was just checking if I have two hairs on my head because I’ve lost a lot of it in 11 years as my team tells me. But when you look at that scoreboard and there are zeros across the board and you have won and achieved something that you set out to do, that you knew was going to be a difficult task, I had to take a moment to think about it.”
UConn is ranked #4, 24-5 overall and still in the Big East driver’s seat at 16-2, one game ahead of Villanova. A No. 1 NCAA Tournament place is still possible, as is extra production in the return of Azzi Fudd, whose last absence with a knee injury has now lasted more than a month, or Caroline Ducharme’s return to form. Her own extended absence over, Ducharme went 1-for-11 from the field on Tuesday.
The Huskies opened the second half with a 13–0 run to take an eight-point lead, but were otherwise flat. Fatigue must play a role in the inconsistency. Ducharme was the only player off the bench to check in for more than two minutes. But Tuesday was missing, and has been missing at various times since New Year, anything other than capable bodies.
“St. John’s played from the opening tip as if their lives depended on every game for the rest of the season,” said Auriemma. “It would have been a shame if they lost that game, to be honest. Because they played so well and so hard. They played like they were the better team, and they were.”
If UConn’s position and reputation and both teams’ records could have been erased before the tip, leaving only the eye test to determine who was who and what was what, one would have guessed that St. John’s, not the Huskies, the team with such high expectations.
The Huskies went 4-for-14 in the first quarter, 5-for-15 in the second, 7-for-17 in the third, 6-for-16 in the fourth. That is 22 for 62, a total of 35.5 percent. St. John’s was only slightly better (36.5 percent) had a 42-37 rebound and a breakthrough player in forward Danielle Patterson, a reserve.
“Every team got what they deserve, 100 percent,” said Auriemma.
When asked if he was concerned about the way his players approach games, Auriemma said, “No. It’s who they are. That’s the downside of playing at UConn for some kids. You have to show up every night and bring it. Not everyone is capable of this. It’s just the reality now.”
There was a long pause, one of many in Auriemma’s 20-minute press conference. In front of him on the table was a box.
“Sometimes you can look at statistics and try to rationalize whatever you want,” Auriemma said. “But I think it goes beyond that.”

There was another long pause.
“St. John’s bench scored 29 points,’ said Auriemma. “That’s a statistic.”
He added: “There is a point in time now, this late in the season where you really need to find something else in you because your tank is running low. You really, really, mentally have to get yourself to a place where you can still function. You can say, well, you did it on Saturday. We did it against Creighton. But we didn’t do that tonight. And you would say, well, how would you explain that? I think that’s probably normal. Because in a normal world you would do what Joe did. You would go to your bench and some guys would come off the bench and pick up some guys who weren’t playing well and were starters. We don’t have that now.”
So UConn lost, got caught off guard and outperformed by a pretty good team that played great.
This is how the rest of the college basketball world has lived for quite some time now.
‘Let’s not confuse matters,’ said Auriemma. “St. John played about as well as I’ve seen a team play against us. And there were a lot of chances where they could have given us the game by making mistakes they didn’t, by missing shots they didn’t miss, by not getting the loose balls they did. So an unfortunate situation here is, when this happens, it’s ‘UConn loses, why?’, not ‘St. John won, why?’ … We could have sucked and they still would have lost if they didn’t play as well as they did.
Auriemma said his team played like one entitled to the Big East championship.
Meanwhile, sixth place Iowa was choked by No. 7 Maryland, a 96–68 loss.
Most teams have problems. UConn is one of them. March is upon us. Something – something – is possible.
“Some things are complicated,” Auriemma said. “This is not very complicated. It is, you play well and you have a chance to win the game. If you play as hard and as competitive as the other team, you have a chance to win the game. And there were long stretches where we were. And there were too many where we weren’t.”

‘We are who we are’

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