TAMPA — There had been a perception that University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, undefeated in nine appearances in the championship game of the women’s Final Four, was more of a jockey in March than a coach. That he had gone from one title run to the next simply by riding the backs of the thoroughbreds he collected in his talented stable.
“I don’t think any of the coaches should apologize for getting the best players,’’ said Auriemma, whose Huskies (37-1) arrived here as the chalk in a rare convergence of four No. 1 seeds at the Final Four. “I think that’s part of the job description when you sign up to be a coach.
“A lot of coaches think it’s noble and honorable to recruit bad players and make them better. I’ve been there. You don’t get to play in March when you have that kind of team.’’
Given Auriemma’s reasoning, it is little wonder why UConn is poised to win its third consecutive title and the 10th in school history Tuesday night when it faces Notre Dame (36-2) in a rematch of last year’s championship game in Nashville, where the Huskies capped a 40-0 season with a 79-58 victory.
It’s all about the players.
“We hear all the time: ‘You’ve managed to collect the best players.’ That’s true,’’ said Auriemma. “Honest to God, that’s true. There are a lot of kids that graduated the same year that Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis did, a lot of them, but they’re not here. They’re All-Americans, they went someplace, but they’re not here.
“It’s something else, once you get them to get here. This is not easy. Whether you have the best players or don’t have the best players, getting here is not an easy thing.’’
To illustrate that point, Auriemma quizzed his inquisitors.
“Any horse racing fans in here?’’ Auriemma asked. “Anybody know who Steve Cauthen is? Who did he ride? Right, he rode Affirmed. Anybody know who the jockey for Alydar was? Hard to remember.’’
Informed that Alydar’s jockey was Jorge Velasquez, Auriemma replied, “I have no idea because he didn’t win any of those three races. That’s why people become famous, because they ride the best horses and they coach the best players.’’
When their teams hit the floor Tuesday night, Auriemma and Notre Dame counterpart Muffet McGraw will be coaching two of the very best players in Breanna Stewart, UConn’s two-time AP Player of the Year and 2015 recipient of the Wade Trophy, and Jewel Loyd, Notre Dame’s All-American guard and scoring leader (19.9 ppg).
While Stewart (25 points) and Loyd (22) led their teams in semifinal victories over Maryland and South Carolina, they were upstaged by some talented teammates.
Morgan Tuck, UConn’s 6-foot-2-inch redshirt sophomore forward who sat out all but eight games of last year’s title run because of knee injuries, chipped in 24 points against the Terrapins to go along with a team-high 9 rebounds.
Tuck also led UConn to a 76-58 victory at Notre Dame Dec. 6 by scoring 25 points on 12-for-19 shooting. She also had 9 rebounds to go along with 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocked shots. Stewart, meanwhile, was held to 15 points, making 9 of 10 foul shots.
“I thought the game that we had with them, she was the best player on their team,’’ McGraw said of Tuck. “She really did so many great things. She’s incredibly overlooked on that team.’’
Against South Carolina, Loyd benefited from the towering post presence of 6-3 freshman forward Brianna Turner, who chipped in 17 points and 8 rebounds. Turner sat out the regular-season matchup against UConn after injuring her right shoulder diving for a loose ball three days earlier.
“She’s our leading rebounder and one of our top three scorers,’’ McGraw said. “I think she makes a difference in our team at the defensive end, with her rebounding, her presence of shot blocking, and the way she can run the floor.
“I think that we are a much better team with her on the floor.’’
The question remains whether it will be enough for Notre Dame, which is making its fourth appearance in the last five national championship games. Notre Dame finished runner-up in all three previous title games, vs. Texas A&M (2011), Baylor (2012) and UConn (2014).
“Anytime you lose in a game, you’re always motivated to win and try to figure out what steps you need to take to finish the goal,’’ Loyd said. “But that’s last year. It’s a whole different season, different team. We’re just really lucky and blessed to have the opportunity that we have to fight for another national championship.’’
UConn, meanwhile, will be playing to deliver Auriemma his 10th title, which would tie him with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for most NCAA championships.
“I think they have a great coach, and I think they have a lot of the best players in the country,’’ McGraw said. “So I would say those were two really good reasons for that.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.