Geno Auriemma, the Connecticut women’s basketball coach, is still, even decades removed from his youth on Philadelphia’s basketball playgrounds, a wise guy at heart.
A wise guy with a needle, and he had it out in the postgame news conference Friday night after his No. 1-ranked Huskies buried Penn State, 89-67, at First Union Center in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
A reporter asked the two players Auriemma brought, Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph, how they’d managed to hold Penn State’s point guard, Helen Darling, without a point.
“Why would you ask either one of them that?” cracked Auriemma. “Neither one of them had anything to do with it.”
Ralph, feigning outrage, turned to her coach and retorted: “That is not true--I guarded her, a little bit.”
Connecticut had reason to joke. The Huskies’ 15th consecutive victory moved them into Sunday’s championship game against Tennessee.
“Yeah, everyone’s been waiting for this one,” Ralph said. “There’s just been so much talk about it--and we’re ready for it.”
Darling, a 5-foot-7 senior, went scoreless in 39 minutes, missing all six of her shots.
“We just tried to turn her, to keep her from going into the paint,” Ralph said.
Ralph had an off-night too, scoring nine points. Her backcourt running mate, Sue Bird, was brilliant. Bird scored 19 points, made five of seven three-point shots and had five assists.
“I’m so proud of Sue Bird, after all she’s been through, only a sophomore--a great, great player,” Auriemma said.
Bird, after undergoing knee surgery, seems to be improving weekly.
She made two three-point shots in the first 10 minutes of the second half, and threw in a pull-up jump shot in the lane to give Connecticut a 57-50 lead with 10:40 to play.
Another major contributor in the run was Asjha Jones, who had two baskets on follow shots.
When Abrosimova made a brilliant, mid-air pass to Swin Cash for a layup, the Huskies led, 65-55, with 8:37 to play.
That sent much of the crowd of 20,060, the largest ever to see a college game in Pennsylvania, heading for the exits.
“We feel we gave them a hard-fought game for 33 minutes, then they did a terrific job of attacking the boards, beating us in the paint,” Penn State Coach Rene Portland said.
Said Auriemma: “It went pretty much the way I thought it would. The kids on both sides were tight, nervous. So there were a lot of missed shots.”