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30 years ago, Geno Auriemma’s UConn dynasty got its start

The 1988-89 team was the coach’s first to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The 1988-89 UConn basketball squad was the first coach Geno Auriemma took to an NCAA Tournament. And a dynasty was born. (Courtesy of UConn athletics)
The 1988-89 UConn basketball squad was the first coach Geno Auriemma took to an NCAA Tournament. And a dynasty was born. (Courtesy of UConn athletics)
Published Apr. 3, 2019|Updated Apr. 4, 2019

TAMPA — It’s a thoroughly modern dynasty, roughly the same age as hair metal. UConn women’s basketball as we know it only seems much older.

“In terms of where our program is and where the NCAA Tournament is and all that, it does seem like a lifetime ago,” coach Geno Auriemma said.

Contributing to that sense of antiquity are the program’s humble beginnings: the sparse, dimly lit log cabin where Huskies basketball was truly born. At least that’s how Greer Field House felt in 1989.

“You hoped that it didn’t rain because the roof leaked,” former Huskie Kerry Bascom recalled.

Before UConn played to standing-room-only home crowds in Gampel Pavilion; before Auriemma became the nation’s top manufacturer of All-Americans this side of Nick Saban; before the gluttony of national titles, the program’s pioneers helped dig the UConn brand’s figurative footers.

They toiled mostly in obscurity, with fans being coaxed into watching them with free food. They incurred the feisty, formative version of Auriemma and top lieutenant Chris “CD” Dailey. They tolerated the tacky uniforms indigenous to the era.

“We’ve got the tube socks on with the colored blue stripes,” Wendy Davis said. “We’ve got our shorty shorts on.”

And they provided the program with its initial taste of tangible success. The Huskies’ appearance this week in Tampa — their 12th consecutive appearance in the Women’s Final Four — coincides with the 30-year anniversary of Auriemma’s first NCAA Tournament squad.

“We had a lot of firsts, which we are all very proud of,” said Bascom — now Kerry Bascom Poliquin — a forward-center and UConn’s first All-American while she played there from 1987-91.

“None of us can look back and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to happen if we go (to UConn).’ … I think we all played our role. I think we all did everything we needed to do at the time to make it what it is and get the recruits in and keep things going.”

The 1988-89 club was Auriemma’s fourth at UConn. None of his first three teams won more than 17 games or finished better than fifth in the Big East. To that point, UConn never had even appeared in the Big East tournament semifinals.

“Everybody thought that when I was signing and going to UConn, they were like, ‘Why would you want to go there?’ “ recalled Debbie Baer Fiske, a freshman guard on the team. “They thought it was Y-U-K-O-N. They were like, ‘Who would want to go to the Yukon?’ “

But that group featured budding stars in Bascom and fellow sophomore Laura Lishness, and a robust freshman class that had been sold on Auriemma and Dailey’s vision. Five of the rookies were from Pennsylvania, giving them common ground with Auriemma, who was raised outside Philadelphia.

“He basically said, ‘Look, I’m new here. I’m looking to build something great. I can’t guarantee anything, but I want you to be part of it because I think it’s going to be something special,’ “ recalled Davis, a guard at UConn and now the women’s coach at Division III Saint Joseph in West Hartford.

“I appreciated his honesty. I just felt Geno and (Dailey) were the most straightforward and honest coaches.”

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Home games were played before a couple hundred or so spectators at Greer, a 35-year-old field house. Dailey, then teaching a fitness class at the university, awarded extra credit to any of her students who showed up at games.

“My father (David) used to go out before the games with a professor and try to hand out sandwiches to get people to come into the game,” Bascom said, “because we would average about 200 people a game.”

Though undersized, at least by today’s standards, and youthful, the Huskies flourished via versatility. At 6 feet 1, Bascom was the de facto center who also took the ball upcourt when necessary.

They earned the program’s first win against Villanova on a buzzer beater in mid February, then clinched the Big East regular-season title outright with a 70-65 triumph against Providence a week later before a veritable throng (1,860) at Greer.

“If you looked at our starting five … for us to go and win the Big East was like, ‘Wow, how did they do that?’ “ said Fiske, the athletic director at a West Hartford prep school and Huskies radio analyst.

“But it was just people who made each other better. … It wasn’t where (Auriemma) could’ve pulled in some all-star who scored 3,000 points in high school. He was about getting the dynamics that, ‘There’s only one basketball, and we’re going to work as a team.’ “

When the inaugural championship envisioned for so long by Auriemma finally materialized, he wasn’t there to witness it.

During the 1988-89 preseason, UConn had hosted a scrimmage against a Division III program. In late February, it was discovered that based on the rules at the time, the scrimmage counted as an actual game, putting the Huskies over the NCAA contest limit.

Syracuse agreed to cancel a late February game to keep UConn within the NCAA limit, but Auriemma was suspended for the regular-season finale against St. John’s and the Big East tournament at Seton Hall.

With Dailey coaching the team and Auriemma at the team hotel getting periodic updates from wife Kathy, the Huskies topped Georgetown, Boston College and Providence in succession to win the league championship.

In the 70-65 title-game triumph against the Friars, Lishness, a guard, had the program’s first triple double (14 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists).

“At the time, Kathy wasn’t on a cellphone telling him what was going on,” Davis said. “But you know what, they had us ready for that. It was a little weird not having him there, but in a sense it gave us even more motivation to prove to him we could do it whether he was there or not.”

Auriemma was back on the bench when UConn — a No. 8 seed in the East Region — fell to LaSalle 72-63 in the program’s first NCAA Tournament contest. The 1988-89 Huskies finished 24-6.

UConn has been to the NCAA Tournament every year since. Two years later, with essentially the same group, the program made its first Final Four, losing to Virginia (where Auriemma had served as an assistant) in the semifinals.

“Sometimes I can’t believe that it’s the same program,” Auriemma said.

“We didn’t win (at the 1991 Final Four), but it was something we can hang our hats,” Davis said. “Now, knock on wood, they go more often than not. We just love the fact that we were the first.”

Women’s Final Four

Amalie Arena, Tampa

April 5: Baylor vs. Oregon, 7; Notre Dame vs. UConn, 9:30 TV: ESPN2

April 7: final, 6 TV: ESPN

More info/tickets: Single-session tickets are available through ncaa.com/womens-final-four; prices vary.

More events

• The Tampa Convention Center will host Tourney Town, a free festival with contests, games, autographs and clinics April 5-7. The event includes Beyond the Baseline, which features opportunities for networking and professional development.

• The plaza outside Amalie Arena will host a free party with live music, food and games before the games (4-6:30 on April 5 and 3-5:30 on April 7).

• Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park will have a free celebration of basketball with fireworks and live music from 6-11 p.m. on April 6.

• The Women’s Final Four Bounce is a dribbling parade for children 18 and younger. It starts at 1 p.m. on April 7 at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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