- It's the least enviable NCAA tournament matchup that exists, but as these small schools found out, being a 16 seed against mighty UConn isn't quite as bad as you'd think.
You see it every year: the videos of college basketball teams, from the title favorites to the mid-majors to the ones on the bubble, watching the NCAA tournament selection show and celebrating when their names get called. It’s part of the ritual of March Madness, and the common emotion, from the power conference teams for whom this is nothing new to those who have never danced before, is unbridled joy.
Contrast that, though, with the reaction of the Albany women’s basketball team, winners of the America East Conference title and its automatic tournament spot. The video taken of the purple-clad players, coaches and program personnel gathered together on Albany’s campus shows what happens when a team learns that it has been given the equivalent of a tournament death sentence in women’s basketball: a first-round matchup with Connecticut.
Amid the tumult of people shouting and laughing, Great Danes coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee can be seen sitting just behind her players, with her two young sons at her side. The first thought that came to her mind as she learned of her team’s fate was simple: I jinxed it.
“I had told my players that there’d be no chance we’d be playing UConn because we had the best RPI,” she said. Indeed, Albany’s RPI of 113 was well above that of the other three 16 seeds and better than that of two 15 seeds. But the numbers could not save McNamee or her team: Despite winning their conference for the sixth straight year, the Great Danes had a first-round date with the top-seeded Huskies, the four-time defending national champion that has not lost a game in nearly three years. It’s an assignment that can quickly spoil the euphoria of getting a bid to the Dance.
“The first reaction is excitement and joy. Then 10 seconds later, it sets in that it’s UConn,” says Cornell head coach Dayna Smith, whose team drew this shortest of straws back in 2008. “Obviously, it’s not who you want to face.”
Only once has a 16 seed toppled a No. 1 in the women’s NCAA tournament, when Harvard beat Stanford, 71–67, in 1998. But while the other three No. 1 seeds in women’s basketball are all top programs that have no trouble surviving and advancing, UConn is a notch above. The Huskies have won 11 national championships since 1995 and six in the last decade and are led by the winningest coach in history in Geno Auriemma. To go up against UConn is to face an unstoppable force, and for the eminently movable objects that are 16 seeds, that means a brutally quick stay in the tournament. A No. 1 seed now for the 11th straight year, the Huskies have dispatched the previous 10 luckless 16 seeds with ease, with an average margin of victory of 48 points. None of those teams has come closer than 33 points, with UConn handing out defeats of 52 (Robert Morris, 2016), 56 (St. Francis Brooklyn, ’15 and Southern, ‘10) and 68 (Idaho, ’13).
“The only time we were close was the national anthem,” jokes St. Francis coach John Thurston. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 45 years of coaching, how dominant they are.”
It might be the most daunting matchup in sports, but the coaches of the 16 seeds that stand in UConn’s path do the best they can. Armed with a few days to prepare, they turn to film of the Huskies, trying to find any advantage they can. But the tape only confirms the obvious: Auriemma’s teams are virtually flawless. “You understand how grand of a task you now have,” Smith says. Ask a coach to describe their game plan against UConn, and most respond with either a laugh or an admission of the tough reality in front of them.
“I told [my players] flat out: Not only do we have to play a perfect game, but we also need UConn not to play well,” says Jennifer Rizzotti, who was the point guard for Auriemma’s first national title team in 1995 and the coach at Hartford when the Hawks played the Huskies in 2011 (final score: UConn 75, Hartford 39).
“You try to find a weakness and highlight that to your team and talk about a plan to exploit that,” Smith says. “UConn just didn’t have that weakness. They still probably don’t.”
Instead, those who faced UConn usually settled on two goals: Play hard, and have fun. Knowing full well that it would take somewhere north of a miracle to pull off the upset, the coaches of these overmatched teams put the emphasis on playing the best game possible and enjoying a rare taste of action against the top program in the world.
“You don’t want to put any more pressure on them than there already is,” Thurston says. “I wanted them to enjoy the total experience rather than keeping them locked up in a film room going over everything that Breanna Stewart did her entire career.”
Coaches try to prepare their team to play in a nationally televised tournament game in a loud arena—UConn’s first-round games usually take place at its home court, Gampel Pavilion—full of diehard Huskies fans. That love of the team goes beyond the court, too. Smith’s Cornell team was scheduled to play UConn in Bridgeport (about 80 miles from Connecticut’s campus) on Easter Sunday in 2008. Before the game, she and some of her players attended mass at a local church. Sitting amid the congregation in their Cornell gear, they were noticed by the priest, who welcomed them and then wished them luck, getting a big laugh from the UConn supporters in attendance.
“We were walking out and people were shaking our hands and saying ‘good season’ like it was already over,” Smith says with a laugh. “It was like a funeral.”
But while UConn is far from a dream matchup, the opportunity to play against Auriemma and his roster of All-Americas is unique and exciting. “Every girl dreams about playing at UConn or against them, because you do really want to measure yourself against the best,” McNamee says. Thurston recalls getting a personal tour of the Huskies’ facilities from Auriemma and the chance to see first-hand what a championship program looks like. For a coach whose school had never before made it to the tournament, it was an unforgettable moment.
“You would think that someone at that stature, he’d look down at you and wouldn’t talk to you,” he says. “But he was phenomenal with us.”
Eventually, though, the wonder of being there gives way to the reality of the game, which is usually over shortly after the opening tip. And even for coaches who have studied film and watched UConn over the years, to watch the Huskies up close is something else entirely.
"When you’re playing against UConn, it looks like they’re on the court by themselves," says Thurston, whose team trailed 47–14 at halftime. "It’s just an amazing experience, until you have to sit in my seat.” Adds Idaho coach Jon Newlee, whose team was down 41 points at the break and by as many as 74 in the second half: “[The gameplan] went out the window in the first few minutes.”
Coaches instead emphasize little victories: getting open shots, playing tough defense, moving the ball. “I told my players to be the best team we can be and give them a battle,” Smith says. And while the score itself rapidly gets out of hand, the game itself never feels like an embarrassment, something that the coaches credit to Auriemma and the mentality he instills in his team to play hard for the entire game no matter the opponent.
“I would have felt disrespected if they’d played less hard [against us],” says Rizzotti. “I was ready for what was to come.”
“I don’t think they ever took their foot off the pedal,” Smith says. “They’re up 25 or 30, and [Auriemma] is calling timeouts because we got a steal or they made a mistake.”
That might rub some coaches the wrong way, but conversely, UConn’s all-out intensity helps soothe the sting of the blowout. Being treated like any other team unlucky enough to be in the Huskies' way, the coaches say, is a testament to the professionalism of Auriemma and the program. “He knows he’s going to win, but they prepare for you the same way they prepare for Notre Dame,” Thurston says. “That’s why they never lose. They never take you for granted.”
Eventually, the final horn sounds and everyone shakes hands. UConn walks off the court victorious and looking forward to its second-round opponent. But the 16 seed now heading home does so with a story to tell, lessons learned and the game of a lifetime.
"It’s weird to say after the thrashing we took, but it was a great experience,” Newlee says. “When you see what they do to top-five teams, how can you feel bad about getting beat down like we did? I told my players, 'There are a lot of teams that wish they could be here and playing UConn. Every one of them would trade places with you.'"
“It’s a great honor for any team to be a part of playing them,” Thurston says.
That honor belongs to Albany this year. On Saturday morning, McNamee will take her team into Storrs, Conn., to try to break a 107-game winning streak. And while the odds are stacked heavily against them, the Great Danes will face the Huskies with nothing to lose.
“You’ve just got to embrace it. Instead of it being intimidating, you have to be like, this is unbelievable,” McNamee says.