COLUMBIA — From the standpoint of building an elite women’s basketball program, Geno Auriemma knows what it feels like to play catch-up. He did just that beginning in the late 1980s, taking over a Connecticut team with no history and an outdated arena, and beginning the process of chasing down the giant of his time.
“We went to our first Final Four in 1991, and the standard was the University of Tennessee. Like far and away, the best program in the country,” Auriemma said. “When we went to the Final Four, we thought, ‘Wow, we want to do what they’re doing.’ The only difference is, when we came back the following year, there weren’t 18,000 people watching us play at our games.”
That was the case Monday night at South Carolina, where the largest crowd to see a women’s NCAA game this season watched No. 1 UConn defeat the second-ranked Gamecocks, 66-54, in a battle of the nation’s lone unbeaten teams. For USC, it was a second loss in as many seasons to the Huskies, who have claimed the last three national titles and won 60 consecutive games.
And yet, when Auriemma looks at where the Gamecocks are today, he sees a program making gains at a more rapid pace than his program did in the early 1990s.
“Where they are right now is a lot further ahead than where we were in 1991. It’s just going to take time. You don’t build these things overnight. No matter what anybody says, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Auriemma, who has led UConn to 10 national titles.
“The fact that they’ve been able to go (to the Final Four) last year, have the kind of year they’re having right now ... you have to start somewhere, and you have to keep making that next step, next step, next step, next step, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
For all their successes under head coach Dawn Staley, including two straight SEC titles and a first Final Four appearance entering this season, the Gamecocks (22-1) still have another step to take. They lost in the national semifinals last season to Notre Dame, which next week could overtake USC for No. 2 in the AP poll. And Monday’s loss sank South Carolina to 0-4 all-time against UConn.
And yet, the support for Staley’s program was evident Monday, in the biggest crowd ever to see a women’s game at USC. South Carolina has led the women’s game in average attendance the past two years. Contrast that to when Auriemma was building UConn, in a 4,000-seat field house so inadequate the women’s basketball team didn’t even have its own locker room.
It was six seasons before Auriemma took UConn to the Final Four, 10 before he won his first national crown. Staley took USC to the Final Four last year in her seventh season at the helm. Teams can bang their heads on that competitive ceiling repeatedly before breaking through — for instance, Notre Dame lost to UConn the first 11 times the teams played, before beating the Huskies twice in the 2001 season, including in the Final Four en route to the national title.
South Carolina will continue to follow UConn’s model in loading up on stout non-conference competition. “Wait until you see our schedule for next season,” Staley said. “It’s a doozy.” It will include Connecticut, which has agreed to extend its series with USC, adding games at Gampel Pavilion in 2017 and Colonial Life Arena in 2018.
“I think our players need to continue to see this kind of basketball,” Staley said. “It helps you practice better. The things they do, if we can do it 50 percent of the time — cut hard, set great screens — if we can do that 50 percent better, we’re going to be a better team.”