STORRS, Conn. — Geno Auriemma wants his players to feel the embarrassment. He wants them to read the headlines from one of the program’s most painful moments in history, when on Monday night, No. 3 Oregon clobbered No. 4 UConn, 74-56, resulting in the worst loss ever at Gampel Pavilion.
After the slaughter, Auriemma was asked what he told his players in the locker room. UConn had previously lost by 17 points twice at its on-campus home—to Iowa in 1990 and to Syracuse in 1992—but that was before UConn was UConn and before any of the current players on this roster were born.
“It’s not my job to make them feel better right now,” Auriemma said. “My job is to be realistic with them and say, ‘Pick up the paper tomorrow, go on social media, read about what happened and then deal with it.’ Plain and simple. You were part of it.”
Thousands of Husky fans bolted for the exits with more than four-and-a-half minutes remaining. Here, leaving early usually just means UConn has an insurmountable lead and people flee to beat traffic. But this is a smart fan base that knows greatness when they see it and when they don’t. It’s partly why Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu received a warm welcome of cheers during pregame introductions.
Monday night, two of the top programs in the country made conflicting statements. On one end was the Ducks (20-2), who felt validated after beating UConn for the first time ever after previously posting an 0-3 all-time record. “This is hallowed ground,” coach Kelly Graves said. “This was icing on the cake. And pretty sweet cake, I’ll tell you that. And pretty nice icing.” This was also Oregon’s third road game in five days and a major question heading in was, could Oregon, still a newcomer on the national stage, beat mighty UConn at its place?
On the other end was UConn (19-2), a young team that’s still searching for an identity and could be in danger of missing the Final Four for the first time since 2007.
Auriemma summed up the current trajectories of these two programs like this: “They’re too good for us. We don’t have anybody at that level right now.”
UConn hasn’t won a national title since 2016, Breanna Stewart’s senior year. Back then Auriemma was fielding questions on debate topics like, Is UConn good or bad for women’s basketball? Now there are many good teams out there and UConn isn’t the best. Over the past three years, teams like South Carolina, Notre Dame and Baylor have caught up and won championships. Oregon looks poised to do it this season.
Despite reporters’ best efforts, Graves wouldn’t go into what this win means in the big picture of Oregon basketball. Feeling the gravity of the situation and his team’s journey over the last few years, Graves said things like, “we’re still the up-and-comer,” and “they’re still the standard by which everybody is judged,” and joked that he counted the 11 national championship banners hanging in the rafters. Ionescu said she was “starstruck” being in the arena.
“There’s a lot of good programs out there today and they’ve certainly made the most progress quicker than anybody else,” Auriemma said. “I wasn’t the least bit surprised. You get a generational-type player like Sabrina and that kind of accelerates the process.
“Remains to be seen what happens after that. A player like that is not easy to replace. And yet at the same time, what Kelly is doing and what they’re building is not going to be dependent on one player. One player can make you—and I know, trust me. They’ve got a lot of things going for them and they’re not going anywhere.”
For those wondering what the Ducks will look like when Ionescu leaves, Graves has the No. 1 recruiting class for 2020 with five of the nation’s top 33 players, according to HoopGurlz.
Ionescu is on pace to become the first men's or women's college basketball player ever to amass 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. She’s already recorded a NCAA-record 23 triple doubles and nearly had another against UConn with 10 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
“The interesting thing,” Auriemma said, “is that she doesn’t do it with tremendous foot speed. She doesn’t run by you and she doesn’t jump over you. She does it more old-school basketball-wise and those players are few and far between. She’ll beat you with her head, her eyes and she beats you with her relentlessness and how tough she is.”
Ionescu will be the first to remind you, though, that she’s not Oregon’s only threat. Ruthy Hebard, a 6’4” forward who is a projected first-round pick, had 21 points and 12 rebounds against UConn. “She gets the shots she wants, knows how to get it, and gets it as many times as she wants,” Auriemma said, noting that his players gave her very little competition in the lane. Satou Sabally, another 6’4” forward, added 17 and 10. All five Oregon starters reached double figures in scoring, and they dominated UConn in the paint by a stunning 44-14 edge. Heading into this game, UConn had only been allowing opponents to average half that.
“We lacked toughness,” starting point guard Crystal Dangerfield admitted in a statement rarely uttered by any UConn player.
UConn has already played several high-profile games this season against Baylor, Tennessee and the U.S. national team, and has another coming up next week on the road against No. 1 South Carolina. The Huskies have plenty of things to fix before then, from having better communication to displaying more physicality.
Oregon still has to finish Pac-12 play, which includes battles against four more ranked opponents, before it can focus on winning what would be the program’s first-ever national title. It’s why Ionescu came back for her senior season instead of being last year’s No. 1 WNBA draft pick. (She’s expected to go No. 1 overall this year instead.)
The last time Oregon and UConn played was at the 2017 Elite Eight in Bridgeport, Conn. The Huskies won handily, 90-52. It was Ionescu’s freshman year and “we weren’t ready to beat these guys in that setting,” Graves said.
They were ready this time.