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ncca women’s basketball Auriemma recalls UConn’s first trip to NCAA tournament

March 22, 2019

STORRS — On the afternoon before his 31st straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, Geno Auriemma circled back to his very first.

The date: March 15, 1989.

“We were going to play La Salle,” Auriemma recalled Thursday at Gampel Pavilion. “Might have been college at the time, they might not have been La Salle University at that time, I don’t even know.”

All these years later, that fact remains a little fuzzy. What Auriemma does remember, though, is how he prepared his team for that eye-opening opportunity.

“One day,” Auriemma said, “we played wiffleball. I was just trying to get their minds off of that this was a different game than the kind of games they were playing during the regular season.

“And a lot of our kids knew a lot of the kids on the La Salle team. It was a really good game and the excitement was unbelievable and the emotions were really high. It was like the greatest thrill ever to be the first team … in your school in women’s basketball to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

Playing on campus at Greer Field House, the Huskies lost to LaSalle, 72-63. Their best player, Kerry Bascom, got nicked up in the process.

It was a rewarding yet nerve-wracking experience, one the now 11-time national champion head coach is certain to never forget.

Towson figures to ride that same emotional roller-coaster as it prepares for Friday’s first-round game against the No. 2 Huskies (31-2) in the Albany Regional. Fresh off a Colonial Athletic Association title, the Tigers are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.

“Just an unreal moment,” senior center Maia Lee called it. “Just being here, being with all the teams, having the NCAA gear, the hats, it’s just becoming so real. It’s just an amazing feeling.

“When you’re a little kid, you dream about these types of moments.”

Towson coach Diane Richardson took a more subdued approach, saying her players are “hungry and focused.” She insisted that they will not be intimidated by the bright lights of March Madness — or, better yet, the numerous national championship banners hanging in the rafters.

The Tigers overcame long odds this year to win 20 games, more than doubling their total from a year ago. They beat Delaware, Hofstra and Drexel in the span of three days to lock up a bid.

“We had a tough non-conference schedule that prepared us for that,” Richardson said. “They went in determined to do that because we planned that the entire season. I put it down like we are going to the beach, and anytime you are going to the beach, there are going to be tolls and bridges. We were going on that road to the beach this year and there were going to be tolls.”

For many freshmen, playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time is no trip to the beach.

“It’s just a different atmosphere,” UConn guard Crystal Dangerfield said. “You’re not really sure what to expect when you get out there. I think at the end of the day, you can’t be too overwhelmed by it.

“But, still knowing if you don’t win, that’s your last game for the season.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour