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Twenty-five years ago, UConn women start dynasty with first national basketball title

The 1994-95 Huskies demonstrated internally and externally what UConn could be — not just by winning national championships, but by impacting the game well beyond the confines of Storrs.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma cuts the net down after the Huskies defeat Notre Dame at Amalie Arena in 2015 to win the 10th of their 11 national championships.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma cuts the net down after the Huskies defeat Notre Dame at Amalie Arena in 2015 to win the 10th of their 11 national championships. [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 4, 2020

HARTFORD, Conn. — Geno Auriemma was ecstatic when he got the call that Rebecca Lobo had decided to play for him at UConn. She was the best center in the country and had chosen to spend the next four years in Storrs over the likes of Stanford, Northwestern and Notre Dame.

But did he think he had just acquired the backbone to an eventual national championship team? No. Nor did he see it coming after getting Jamelle Elliott, Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters to come aboard.

“We didn’t know any of this stuff,” Auriemma said. “We were just like, ‘Man, we really like these kids, and I think they fit our culture. And if we bring them there, who knows what could happen?’ “

Auriemma and the basketball found that out in 1995, when those four and the rest of the 1994-95 Huskies dethroned top-ranked juggernaut Tennessee, went undefeated in the Big East and ultimately strung together a 35-0 record. The culmination of that run, achieved 25 years ago Thursday, was UConn’s first national title, a 70-64 win over the Lady Vols at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

But in the years since, that group has shown that winning the school’s first basketball title was just the beginning for UConn’s dynasty.

•••

Auriemma said he first realized that he had a team capable of something special in the middle of the 1993-94 season. Though the Huskies ultimately fell to North Carolina in the Elite Eight, they had won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, dropping one game in conference play altogether, while securing the program’s first 30-win season. Next season the Huskies would return all their major contributors and add highly touted recruit Nykesha Sales.

“When we put it all together and we threw them all into the pot and started mixing it up, we looked up one day and went, ‘Damn, I think we could win the whole thing with this group,’ “ Auriemma said.

They had all the right pieces. As Lobo put it, they fielded “a fiery point guard (Rizzotti), a dominant center (Wolters), a stretch 4 (Lobo) before they were even called that, a creator in Nykesha (Sales),” the last of whom Rizzotti described as “the perfect finishing piece to our puzzle.” Lobo emerged as the consensus national player of the year that season, and Rizzotti picked up All-America honors.

Though all that was important, it wasn’t what made the Huskies a championship team

“We had a really good mix of all the intangible and tangible qualities that you need to be good,” Rizzotti said. “And so our combination together ended up being so much greater than the parts of that team.”

They had a high basketball IQ, which helped Auriemma implement a triangle offense entering the season. The relatively laid-back dispositions of senior co-captains Lobo and Pam Webber were perfectly complemented by the more intense ones of juniors Rizzotti and Elliott. Players such as Sales and Carla Berube embraced their roles off the bench. Even after media attention soared, no one sought the limelight.

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But the Huskies were also self-motivated high-achievers, driven to be great and take down anyone standing in their way. Sometimes their foil was Auriemma, who pushed and jabbed them to overcome their individual shortcomings and come together as a group.

“They were all just very, very mature in how they went about their business, and they expected perfection,” said Tonya Cardoza, who was a first-year assistant coach on that 1994-95 team. “Every day when they came to practice, it was about beating (Auriemma) and his expectations. And when they left practice, they either felt that way or they didn’t, but they knew coming in the next day that they wanted to be better. They wanted to try to do something special.”

The team took a massive step in that direction by beating then-No. 1 Tennessee on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a nationally televised matchup that set shockwaves throughout the basketball world. By the time the national championship game came along, UConn had steamrolled most of its opponents, with all but one game decided by double figures. A victory over the Lady Vols would mark the first 35-0 season record in NCAA history.

None of that mattered. The players just wanted to win. And if that ultracompetitive bunch needed any extra motivation, everyone from semifinalist coaches Andy Landers of Georgia and Tara Vanderveer of Stanford to commentator Robin Roberts favored Tennessee in the rematch.

It was the perfect storm for perfection that not even early foul trouble for Lobo, a nine-point second-half deficit nor the mighty Lady Vols could stop.

“It just seemed magical,” Cardoza said of the season in its entirety, “like it was destined to happen.”

Said Auriemma: “They were all smart. They all knew the game. They saw the game. They had a feel for the game. They had a feel for each other. They had tremendous rapport with each other. We had great leadership. And they were competitive as hell. We had a couple guys that just had to win. They had to be right about everything. And that carried over.

“What more do you want in a team?”

•••

It took some time for UConn to reach the mountaintop once more. After the Huskies fell in overtime to Tennessee in the 1996 national semifinals, injuries to stars including Shea Ralph, Sales and Sue Bird kept them out of the Final Four for three straight years. Auriemma insists he thought they were “snake bit” and feared they’d end up a one-hit wonder. Winning the 2000 national championship was ultimately validation that they weren’t.

Two titles soon became five, and five eventually blossomed into 11. But that 1994-95 team set the standard and demonstrated internally and externally what UConn women’s basketball could be — not just by winning national championships, but by impacting the game well beyond the confines of Storrs.

Two years after the 1994-95 title, Lobo became a pillar of the newly created WNBA, a league that owed its existence in part to how the 1994-95 Huskies inspired the country to embrace women’s basketball in a way it hadn’t before. Lobo and Wolters each won an Olympic gold medal. Sales later became the WNBA Orlando Miracle’s inaugural player upon its creation.

And what the group has achieved following its playing days may be even more profound.

Lobo, an ESPN commentator, and Wolters, an in-studio analyst for UConn broadcasts on SNY, emerged as media fixtures. Sales entered the coaching ranks as an assistant at UCF after a lengthy career in the WNBA, and Elliott was the head coach at Cincinnati for nine seasons and filled a vacated spot on Auriemma’s staff midway through this past season. Rizzotti, an assistant for the U.S. women’s team, built a mid-major power at Hartford, where she became the winningest coach in America East history and secured six NCAA Tournament bids before taking the reins at George Washington.

Even Berube, one of the 1994-95 team’s quietest players and one whom Auriemma hardly envisioned going into coaching, eventually caught the bug. After temporarily leaving basketball, Berube found herself being pulled right back in, in large part due to what she experienced in Storrs.

“That had so much to do with our time at UConn and our experience, and I’m sure a lot of my teammates feel the same way,” said Berube, who after a successful stint at Tufts had Princeton primed for the NCAA Tournament in her first season with the Tigers this year. “You want to bottle that up and try to find it in some sort of other way.”

Auriemma’s not surprised by what the players have done as professionals. And catapulting UConn into a countrywide sensation helped them recognize the influence they would have once they left Storrs.

“That particular group had so much fun playing the game, they had so much fun with each other,” Auriemma said. “They had such an incredible impact nationally that I think it’s only natural that they would say, ‘Hey, I want to be able to provide this for somebody else. I want to be a part of this for as long as I can.’ “

To the players, though, it’s impossible to untangle where they are now from the people who guided them to the apex that night in Minneapolis 25 years ago: Auriemma and longtime associate head coach Chris Dailey.

“They really do a good job of preparing people to succeed, of preparing people to be hard workers and to give back in some way, to understand what it actually means to work hard,” Lobo said.

And that’s perhaps what endures the most about their legacy.

“I think it’s part of my responsibility to develop the next generation of coaches and officials and broadcasters,” Rizzotti said. “But we’d be remiss if we didn’t go back and say (Auriemma) was the one that inspired us. He doesn’t have to be female to have inspired a generation of females. I think all of us feel like it’s our job to turn around now as females that were inspired by our UConn experience and make sure that we do the same for the next generation.”

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