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Pressure to be best is unrelenting at UConn

Coach Geno Auriemma, talking to Breanna Stewart, says: “It’s not easy playing here.’’
Coach Geno Auriemma, talking to Breanna Stewart, says: “It’s not easy playing here.’’
Published Apr. 4, 2015

TAMPA — Count Rebecca Lobo among the legions who struggled with the transition from college to the work force. Landing that first job wasn't the problem; landing smack into the sobering crux of reality was.

The 1995 Naismith college player of the year barely had begun her new gig when an especially tough day at the office left her in tears.

"When I went to the WNBA, we lost our first game (after seven consecutive victories) and everybody else was kind of like, 'Oh, we've got another one in two days,' " recalled Lobo, assigned to the New York Liberty during the league's first player allocations in early 1997. "And I was sitting in my locker crying like it was the end of the world."

Turned out, college had prepared Lobo for practically everything from fine arts appreciation to fiscal management. What it didn't brace her for was defeat.

In her final two years at Connecticut, her team lost a total of three games. As a senior, the Huskies didn't lose any.

"The culture there (at UConn) is that you don't lose," Lobo said, "and if you do, it's not okay and you better quickly figure out how to improve on what you need to improve on."

In the generation since Lobo's departure, the bar in Storrs, Conn., steadily has been raised, with altitude measured in rings instead of rungs. Aside from the Harlem Globetrotters, no basketball team on the planet annually is saddled with a higher expectation level.

"It's okay because it's something that we've created," said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, who arrives at this weekend's Final Four at Amalie Arena with an .872 winning percentage (915-134), nine national titles and five undefeated seasons in 30 years.

"So it's not like somebody dumped it on us and said, 'Here, you be that guy,' or 'You be that team.' It's taken us 20 years to create this, and now that we've created it we've got to deal with it."

Ah, dealing with it. That requires a special type of Bird (see Sue). Assimilating oneself into the UConn culture requires a set of prerequisites not every blue-chipper can meet.

"It's not easy playing here," Auriemma said.

Skin must be thick, tolerance for error thin. Players must allow themselves to be prodded, needled, shoved to perfection's threshold. Odds are imaginatively stacked against the Huskies in practice — such as more defensive than offensive players on the floor — to forge mental strength.

Profanity may or may not be interspersed along the way.

"If you screw up, (Auriemma) is going to be all over you, and he's going to continue to challenge you physically and mentally every moment that you play for him," Lobo said.

"If you make a mistake he'll point it out, but if you do it again, it's not okay. And he will get on you in front of every other player on the team. That's how he handles situations, in front of everyone, because when you're in a game you're in front of 10,000 people, plus whoever is watching on TV, so you better be able to handle what he's throwing at you as well."

The level of demand isn't inversely proportional to the size of UConn's lead. Less than five minutes into an early-February game at Memphis, Auriemma pulled his two leading scorers at the time — All-American Breanna Stewart and low-post veteran Morgan Tuck — for a sluggish start.

Neither returned. The Huskies won, 80-34.

"There have been games this year where it's 72-9 (Jan. 11 at SMU) and I'm just amazed because there's no team that I've ever had that could do that to somebody, because you have to stay focused for the entire game," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.

"You get up 20 or 30 on somebody and all of a sudden you try to throw a behind-the-back pass, you don't box out. They don't do that. They play every possession, no matter who they're playing, like it's the last."

Because Auriemma's cache and credentials precede him, the current generation of Huskies generally are poised for such demands once they arrive on campus. What's more, many embrace the demands. They want the rigor, the relentless quest for superiority, the notion of being each opponent's biggest game of the year.

They also want to please their coach and perpetuate their school's dominance.

"That is one of the biggest things that drives me," former UConn guard Kelly Faris told the Hartford Courant. "I don't want to disappoint (Auriemma) by not playing hard for him."

To that end, the veteran UConn teams ultimately police themselves.

"By the time you get to be a junior and a senior at Connecticut, there isn't much I can say to you that I haven't said a thousand times," said Auriemma, who turned 61 on March 23. "There's not much more I can do to motivate you. It's got to come from inside you."

Walz recalls observing a Huskies practice early in his career in which Auriemma spent the first hour chatting with him over coffee while a handful of veterans essentially ran the workout. When reminded of it, Auriemma noted the team Walz observed that day was among the best in UConn history.

"And I'm telling you, when somebody didn't go hard, he didn't have to say anything," Walz recalled. "The players were on each other's tail."

Thirty years later, the demands — and dominance — remain a constant. Auriemma acknowledges not all his teams — including this one — manage themselves with such diligence, and society's evolution may have forced him to tweak some methods and tone down others.

But for every Huskies team, perfection remains the ultimate quest, and an unwavering commitment still is the common denominator.

"It's not even just losing a game, it's you better come ready to practice hard and really well every single day because if you don't, it's going to be pointed out to you, it's going to be thrown in your face constantly during the course of that three-hour practice," Lobo said.

"So I think that's one of the things that can be different about Connecticut from other places. It is never okay to fall short of what you're trying to do."

Staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report. Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.