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U.S. coach has a golden name in women's basketball

Geno Auriemma, whose Connecticut teams have had four undefeated seasons, says there's nothing like the pressure of coaching the U.S. Olympic team in a gold-medal game.

April 28, 2012|By Mike Bresnahan
  • Geno Auriemma watches as Notre Dame begins to pull away from his Connecticut team in the women's Final Four on April 1.
Geno Auriemma watches as Notre Dame begins to pull away from his Connecticut… (John Woike, Hartford Courant )

He's a one-named wonder in the women's basketball universe, tantamount to Pele, Magic and Michael in their domains.

Geno doesn't need the last part of his name for identifying purposes, but it's Auriemma, for the record.

These days, only one thing still pushes him outside his comfort zone.

"I have never felt more pressure in my life than coaching an Olympic gold-medal game for the U.S.," said Auriemma, who was an assistant coach in 2000 when the Americans won gold and is charged with heading the 2012 Olympic women's team. "It overwhelms me, to be honest with you. And I wasn't even born here. It's not your town, your school, your state. It's your country. Now I know why the guys playing World Cup soccer behave the way they do. I feel like a little kid out there."

Auriemma, born in Italy, coached the U.S. women's team to a gold medal at the 2010 World Championships and is expected to win again in the Olympics this summer with a team that, by his own admission, is even better.

It's hard to imagine how much improvement could take place.

The 2008 team, coached by Anne Donovan, breezed to the gold medal with a ridiculously one-sided 92-65 victory over Australia. Team USA went 5-0 in preliminary play with an average margin of victory of 43 points. Its closest call in the tournament was a 67-52 decision over Russia in the semifinals.

Come to think of it, the U.S. women's basketball team hasn't had many problems, period, since the mid-1990s. The aim this summer is a fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal.

It would be a shocking development only if a 33-game Olympic winning streak was ended.

"We've got the best players, I think, one through 12," Auriemma said. "We've got the deepest team and Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird in the backcourt. In any international competition, your guards are so important, and I think we've got the best in the world. They've won two gold medals, and they're going for a third."

Auriemma, 58, credits the wondrously high expectations at Connecticut for his success with the U.S. team.

He's won seven national championships and coached four undefeated teams at Connecticut, where his career record sits at 804-129. Not everybody is always satisfied.

"I guess Connecticut's prepared me for the Olympic job because it's the only place you're supposed to get to the Final Four in rebuilding years," he said. "The expectations are so high out here."

The Huskies were supposed to be rebuilding last season but pushed Notre Dame to overtime before losing in the Final Four semifinal a month ago. Some people called it the best coaching job in Auriemma's 27 years at Connecticut.

Others would shrug and say, "That's Geno."

"This year was a lot of fun," he said. "It was frustrating at times, but I enjoy when we feel like we have something to prove because I'm not in that situation very often. Almost never do I take my team on the court and we're underdogs. That was kind of refreshing."

Russia and Australia are expected to be the main competition for the U.S. this summer, but those are teams that somehow lost to Belarus and the Czech Republic, respectively, at the World Championships two years ago.

Auriemma likes defensive-minded teams but isn't a cliched purveyor of defense winning championships.

"You still have to score because the Europeans can score on people," he said. "I use this analogy with my team all the time. When the men played in Beijing [in 2008] and played Spain in the gold-medal game, you've got a team with LeBron [James], Kobe [Bryant], Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. Spain scored 107 points in 40 minutes in that game. That just scares you because the Europeans know how to score. There just come times you have to outscore the other team.

"Everybody else has gotten better in the last two years, but hopefully so have we and we can keep the distance between us and them."

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