July 22, 2023 

How Tonya Cardoza returning as an assistant coach impacts UConn

Cardoza was an assistant coach at UConn for 14 seasons in the 1990s and 2000s

In his first-ever Final Four in 1991, UConn’s Hall-of-Fame head coach Geno Auriemma faced off against his former boss, Virginia head coach Debbie Ryan, with a trip to the national championship game on the line. That night, Cavaliers senior Tonya Cardoza sunk key free throws down the stretch, securing a 61-55 Virginia victory.

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Three years after that Final Four appearance — prior to the 1994-95 season — Auriemma hired Cardoza as an assistant coach at UConn. In her first season on the bench, the Huskies went 35-0 to win the program’s first-ever national championship. Cardoza stayed on the UConn staff for 14 seasons and helped build the UConn program into a dynasty. The Huskies won five national championships (1995, 2000, 2002-04), 12 BIG EAST regular-season titles and 11 conference tournament titles during her tenure.

In 2008, Cardoza accepted the head coaching job at Temple, taking over for former Virginia teammate and Hall of Famer Dawn Staley, who left for the University of South Carolina. During 14 seasons in Philadelphia (2008-2022), Cardoza amassed a 251-188 record en route to becoming Temple’s all-time winningest coach. She was dismissed as head coach of the program following the 2021-22 season and did not coach last season.

When UConn began a search at the end of June to hire an assistant coach, it appeared to do so with Cardoza in mind. The job posting — which came in response to the NCAA allowing men’s and women’s basketball programs to add two more coaches to their staffs — included minimum qualifications of 10 or more years of head coaching experience in a Division I program and experience coaching in NCAA Division I national championship games. As expected, Cardoza was announced as a UConn assistant coach on July 13, returning to where her coaching career began.

“UConn is where I gained my foundation as a coach,” Cardoza said in the team’s announcement. “I’m thrilled for this opportunity to come back home to where it all started. I look toward to working alongside people who I consider my family.”

UConn’s perimeter potential

As an assistant coach at UConn, Cardoza worked closely with some of the program’s most heralded point guards: Jen Rizzotti, Shea Ralph, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. As the head coach at Temple, she helped shape current Phoenix Mercury guard Shey Peddy into a professional prospect.

UConn’s current roster has some of the most talented guards in the nation, including two-time BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year Nika Mühl, sharpshooter Azzi Fudd, versatile wing Caroline Ducharme and 2021 Naismith Player of the Year Paige Bueckers. The Huskies also add highly touted freshman guards KK Arnold, Qadence Samuels and Ashlynn Shade.

Cardoza brings an additional voice and perspective to help develop that immense perimeter talent.

“With the change in our roster makeup, it was critical that we get an experienced coach to work with our perimeter players,” Auriemma said in the announcement. “Bringing Tonya here and having [assistant coach] Morgan [Valley] gives us two amazing individuals and great teachers that our players can learn from.”

Cardoza is the type of coach who can transform a good guard into a great guard and an elite guard into a legendary guard. Bringing in a coach of Cardoza’s caliber who has the experience of and knowledge of UConn’s culture and system is an absolute gold mine for a Connecticut program looking to end a seven-season title drought.

From her key free throws as a senior guard on the opposing team in UConn’s first-ever Final Four to her 14 seasons of coaching in Storrs, Cardoza already has a legacy with the program that has won the most NCAA championships in women’s basketball history. By returning, she now has the chance to help this talented, guard-rich roster create a legacy of its own.

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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