March 21, 2023 

Inside UConn’s Sweet Sixteen-clinching victory

Huskies advance to 29th consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance

STORRS, CT — At nearly 11:30 p.m. ET on Monday evening, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma entered the postgame press conference in Gampel Pavilion with a look of sheer gratitude on his face. He had just finished hugging his loved ones including his wife and other family members, former players and university administration staff that had gathered outside the UConn locker room.

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Upon ascending the media dais, Auriemma opened the press conference by stating that this 77-58 win over No. 7 seed Baylor to advance to the Sweet Sixteen was one of the “most gratifying wins” that he has had in Gampel Pavilion in his nearly 40 years of coaching.

“There was a game against Toledo [in Gampel Pavilion] and in the NCAA Tournament and we had never been to the regionals. And we got a 3-point play from [UConn’s first ever All-American Kerry Bascom] with like 10 seconds left to win it to go to our first regional and I thought, ‘you know, nothing will ever top that’ but in all these other games since then, pretty much, you know, we’ve kind of been expected to win. We’ve been expected to do UConn things. We usually come into this tournament, we got everybody healthy for the most part. We’re rolling in and we just storm through the tournament. And this year, none of that was true. Everything was a struggle. Everything was was hard,” Auriemma said.

That 81-80 victory against Toledo in 1991 advanced the UConn program to its first-ever Sweet Sixteen. The Huskies would go on to their first Final Four that same season, a feat that has been repeated 22 times and counting. After missing the Sweet Sixteen in both 1992 and 1993, the Huskies returned to the Sweet Sixteen in 1994. Since then, there has not been a single NCAA Tournament that didn’t include the Huskies in the round of 16. That’s 29 consecutive seasons.

“For us to be in the position that we’re in, to go to the same place where so many other UConn teams have gone yet having gone through so much more that I think than any other UConn team has had to go through. I just was — I was really proud of them because I’ve been through a lot of these, but they haven’t,” Auriemma said. “So to see them feel what it feels like; I mean this is why we do what we do, right? You know, I’m out there, I’m coaching like I’m trying to get to our first regional ever. And in some ways, I am, you know, because [UConn grad transfer Lou Lopez Sénéchal] has never been to one and those are the kinds of things that that make this job rewarding.”

A Baylor battle

The last time the Connecticut Huskies and the Baylor Bears faced off was in the 2021 NCAA Tournament in the San Antonio “bubble” during the COVID season. With five seconds remaining in that 2021 Elite Eight matchup, Baylor guard DiJonai Carrington drove to the basket and ran into UConn posts Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards. In what many believed should have been a foul on UConn, the refs didn’t call it, and UConn snuck into the Final Four.

That loss to UConn ended up being then Baylor coach Kim Mulkey’s last-ever game at the helm of the program. A few weeks later, Mulkey announced that she’d be leaving Waco to take the LSU head coaching job. Baylor replaced the Hall of Fame coach with then Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen.

Collen has led the Bears to a 48-20 record in two seasons as head coach. Last season Baylor succeeded behind the efforts of Mulkey-era recruit and First Team All-American NaLyssa Smith. Smith and fellow senior Queen Egbo graduated in 2022 and entered the WNBA draft. To begin this season, Collen brought in high-caliber transfers in Aijha Blackwell and Dre’Una Edwards. Unfortunately for Collen, Blackwell was injured early in the season and sat out for most of the year and Edwards was denied a transfer waiver from her prior school, Kentucky, deeming her ineligible to play this season.

Although a 20-13 season without a Big 12 regular season or tournament title may be considered a down season in Waco due to the sky-high expectations on the program from the Mulkey era, Collen isn’t into the comparison game. She came to rebuild Baylor into a program aligned with her values and in her vision.

Baylor guard Ja’Mee Asberry looks to drive to the hoop against UConn’s defensive pressure. (Photo Credit / Baylor WBB Twitter)

After the game on Monday, a clearly emotional Nicki Collen took to the media dais. Her disappointment on behalf of her seniors whose careers ended was evident, and so was her love and gratitude for the student-athletes she’s been tasked to lead. She spoke about the expectations that she shoulders as the coach to follow Hall of Famer Kim Mulkey.

“Everybody knows like — the coach that takes over for [Geno Auriemma at UConn] has got a tough task. When that day comes, if it comes — you know, but it was about our, it was about culture. It was about saying, ‘This is who we are, this is how we’re going to do things and this is who I am.’ And I want you to do things, and it was about being unapologetic about caring about kids, caring about them on the court, caring about them off the court, hugging them, loving them, getting them to understand that it’s bigger than basketball. And at the same time, you know, anyone who knows me really well knows there’s not a more competitive person on the planet … I thought we went toe-to-toe with maybe the best coach there’s ever been in women’s college basketball.”

UConn improves to 6-4 against Baylor with last night’s win. The series is closely matched and both are heavyweight programs in contemporary women’s basketball history. With Blackwell and Edwards expected to return next season, time will tell if Baylor will retain its position among the elite. One thing is certain: Nicki Collen is a phenomenal leader who will guide this program in her unique style.

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Maya Moore returns to Storrs

If you looked closely behind the UConn bench on Monday evening, you may have noticed UConn alum and basketball legend Maya Moore alongside her husband, Jonathan Irons. Here’s a quick summary of what Moore accomplished in her basketball career:

In her four years at UConn (2007-11), Moore lost just four games total. She led UConn to a 90-game winning streak (the all-time record at the time) and two national championships. Moore left college as a three-time All-American and two-time Wade Trophy award winner. After UConn, Moore was the No. 1 draft in the WNBA draft, selected by the Minnesota Lynx. In her eight seasons in the league, she won four WNBA titles, was a six-time All-Star and the 2014 MVP award. To round out her resume, Moore also won two Olympic and two World Cup gold medals.

After tremendous success in her relatively short professional career, Moore stepped away from the game of basketball prior to the 2019 WNBA season. She left the game to dedicate her time to criminal justice reform and specifically to fight for the release of family friend Jonathan Irons, who was wrongfully convicted of a crime as a teen. Irons was eventually released from his wrongful imprisonment in Jan. 2020 at the age of 40. It was later revealed that Moore and Jonathan are a couple; they are now married and have a child.

In Jan. 2023, Moore officially announced her retirement from the game of basketball. Her announcement aligned with the release of Love and Justice: A Story of Triumph on Two Different Courts, a book she co-wrote with Irons to tell their unconventional story of finding love and justice amidst the painful circumstances of Irons’ imprisonment.

On Monday, just hours before UConn took to the court to face Baylor, Moore and Irons participated in a meet-and-greet and Q+A with roughly 100 people in attendance. The two promoted the book and shared details about their relationship and efforts in criminal justice reform.

UConn alum Maya Moore (left) sits next to her husband, Jonathan Irons. The couple wrote a memoir together that details their experience fighting for Iron’s freedom from wrongful imprisonment. (Photo Credit / Tee Baker)

“We released [the book] a few months ago and it really tells so much more of our story. You get to hear more about Jonathan’s story on his own, my story on my own and our story together and just some of the powerful moments and timelines that have brought us to where we are today,” Moore said. “So everyone who’s read it is just so touched and grateful and we’re overwhelmed.”

Maya’s trip to Storrs was bookended by a UConn win to advance to yet another Sweet Sixteen. It’s players like Moore who have set the standard of excellence for Connecticut women’s basketball, and having her at the game was another reason for Auriemma to be gratified with this victory.

The Huskies now travel across the country to Seattle, where they’ll face No. 3 seed Ohio State. Tip-off for that Sweet Sixteen matchup is at 4 p.m. ET this Saturday, Mar. 24.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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