BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — You don’t think of Diana Taurasi as the sentimental type — or at least that’s not something she shows externally. But the greeting from the fans in Connecticut, the all-Huskies starting lineup, the crisp and familiar way they played together … that prompted some thoughts from the warm and fuzzy side.
“You know, I walked out to shoot before the game, and they were going crazy,” Taurasi said after scoring 14 points to lead the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team to an 83-43 exhibition victory over Canada on Friday. “And it just makes you think, ‘It’s such a special place to play basketball.’ Because they never forget you.”
Now, before you non-UConn fans — especially those who favor an Orange hue — get your gag reflex tripped, try to pull back the lens and really see the big picture here. So much has been written about Geno Auriemma’s program and its 11 NCAA titles, the success of former Huskies in the WNBA, the massive UConn presence and influence on the U.S. national team.
And, again, if you’re not a UConn follower, you might feel that you overdosed on all this years ago. Understandable. UConn has won the last four national championships. There were six Huskies on the 2012 Olympic team, and there are five on this year’s squad for the Rio de Janeiro Games. Auriemma has been the national team coach for two editions of the world championship, and will soon preside over his second Olympics.
“It’s awesome,” Catchings said. “Being here with the UConn [fans], being in Delaware with [Elena] Delle Donne on Wednesday with her crowd … we go to college, we get four years to experience that, and then we go to our WNBA teams. And it’s a little bit different.
“But whenever we come close to where our schools are, the fans show out. And having games in these two cities — and Madison Square Garden, I think, will be great on Sunday — it’s great to have our fans here who supported us through college.”
Catchings said she did spy a little orange in the crowd, too, at Webster Bank Arena.
“Hey, we had a couple of Tennessee people in here,” she said, chuckling. “I said, ‘Oh, you guys have to be brave wearing these orange shirts in here.’ But it’s all for a good cause.”
Indeed, it’s the cause that the best American women’s basketball players have been devoted to for quite a long time now. During halftime of Friday’s game, two members of the 1996 Olympic team — Dawn Staley, now a U.S. assistant to Auriemma, and Lisa Leslie, who was doing television commentary — were announced on court and received a standing ovation.
The fans here were well aware of their USA Basketball history: how the 1996 team trained together on a months-long tour and then took Atlanta by storm, winning the first of what now is five consecutive gold medals.
That appreciation of contributors to Olympic glory fits with the mindset that Taurasi was talking about of not forgetting. And when you think about it, that’s particularly important to cultivate in women’s sports, which is generally less-covered and less-celebrated.
You could also say this: Huskies players — at UConn and long after — regularly deliver the goods. Friday, the whole U.S. team did that. Auriemma wanted a better effort than the United States had in beating the U.S. select team Monday in Los Angeles and France on Wednesday in Delaware. He got it.
The UConn starting five set the tone — Auriemma has varied the starters over the three exhibition games and probably will again Sunday — and the Americans were in crush-mode the rest of the way. Canada never got anything going offensively.
The UConn player for the Maple Leaf side, rising junior Kia Nurse, had a particularly tough night, going 0-for-3 from the field and being held scoreless. Nurse was part of the Canadian team that beat a Stewart-led U.S. squad in the Pam Am Games final last year, but there was none of that Friday.
Nurse, who is coming back from surgery for a sports hernia, said that “today was not a good day” in regard to how she performed. But she brightened up when asked about the crowd.
“Connecticut is a basketball state,” Nurse said. “It’s a great atmosphere to play in.”
There was another link between Friday’s game and how it usually feels at Huskies’ games: It wasn’t exactly a nail-biter. UConn fans are used to blowouts, where the action on court is appreciated, but doesn’t really produce much of a rush.
Thus, affection, not adrenaline, is what the crowd mostly experienced. That’s OK, though, because this entire team is worth that. And to this part of the country, especially, Friday’s starting five was perfect.
“It really is just a different level of family,” Taurasi said. “There’s just so many layers. And you don’t understand the layers until you leave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve kept it closer to my heart every day a little bit more.”