The first sign that normalcy had returned to UConn was tied in a Windsor knot around Geno Auriemma's neck.
It was a tie, the accessory strangely excluded from Auriemma's business attire during the Big East tournament. And Saturday's was a birthday tie; the Hall of Fame coach turned 59, for which he was serenaded by his players after the team's morning shoot-around.
Truth is, Auriemma without a tie looked weird last week, like his team during the forgettable final 18.6 seconds in its championship game loss to Notre Dame.
But the open collar and disappointment were buttoned shut Saturday during a revitalizing 105-37 win over No. 16 Idaho in the first round of the Bridgeport Regional at Gampel Pavilion.
The game was played before just 4,627, the smallest crowd at Gampel Pavilion since March 1994, when 5,144 watched a game against Seton Hall.
"There's quite a disparity [in talent]," Auriemma said. "We try not to focus on anything else but what we could do well today. What kind of tone we could set for ourselves in the NCAA Tournament. We didn't want [lethargy] to be a factor. We tried to constantly push the ball on both ends of the floor."
"The goal was obviously to win, but we accomplished pretty much everything we set out to accomplish."
The Huskies (30-4) have now won at least 30 games for Auriemma 18 times since 1993-94. They will try for one more Monday when they play Vanderbilt in the second round.
Led by Tiffany Clarke's 16 points, the Commodores, a longtime SEC powerhouse, defeated St. Joseph's (Pa.) 60-54 in Saturday's first Gampel sub-regional game.
UConn had six players score in double-figures, led by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. She scored all of her game-high 22 points in the first half.
Freshman Morgan Tuck added 18 points. Freshman Moriah Jefferson scored a career-high 16.
Sophomore Kiah Stokes had her second career double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), including the bucket that pushed the Huskies over 100 with 1:59 to play.
Bria Hartley scored all of her 13 points in the first half. And Stefanie Dolson added 10 points.
"They are just so long at every position," said Idaho's Alyssa Charlston. "It's like 3 or 4 inches at every position. And they are so strong."
Stacey Barr led the Vandals (17-16) with 14 points. It was Idaho's first NCAA playoff appearance since 1985, and just its second ever.
What was most telling was the terror that the Huskies inflicted on Idaho, especially during the first half, when they scored the first 15 points on the way to a 58-17 lead.
Not that it got much better in the second. The Vandals, champion of the Western Athletic Conference, had one point in the first 8:23 of the second half before Connie Ballestero scored with 11:37 remaining.
That pulled Idaho within 58 points.
"They presented us with things we'd never seen before," Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. "We can't replicate it in practice or in the Western Athletic Conference. We just tried to play as hard as we could; they are a great basketball team."
"I can't believe Notre Dame beat them three times. I can't believe anyone could beat them three times."
For a long time the Huskies held Idaho to the fewest points ever scored by a team in an NCAA Division I women's game. Southern scored 27 points against Duke in 2006.
But the Vandals made four of their eight three-pointers in the final 3:38 to soften the blow.
Playing without freshman Breanna Stewart, sidelined as a precaution with a sore left calf, the Huskies turned the Vandals' NCAA appearance into something of a mixed memory.
The Vandals had just 14 field goals and shot 26.4 percent. They were outrebounded 45-23 and committed 21 turnovers.
The Huskies forced Idaho into 17 first-half turnovers and shot 23 of 41 from the field in the first 20 minutes, led by Mosqueda-Lewis (22 points, 9 of 11) and Hartley (13 points, 5 of 9).
Of note was the return of UConn's three-point attack. Shut out by Notre Dame for the first time since 2002's national championship, the Huskies made 6 of 12 in the first half, adding outside injury to Idaho's aches and pains.
Auriemma returned Caroline Doty to the starting lineup and gave eight on his nine remaining players substantial playing time. Only Heather Buck's appearance was delayed until 9:03 remained in the game when UConn led, 84-20.
Although Stewart's absence altered Auriemma's plans for his starting lineup, everything else about the day went according to the grand plan.
"One of the big things we wanted to improve was our guard play," Kelly Faris said. "Things needed to change. We had to stop relying on the coaches for every single thing."
And the play of Hartley, in the midst of an uneven junior season, was exemplary, as personified by the slick step-back jumper she used to light up the Vandals.
"After it happened, it was like, 'I don't think I've done that move since high school,'" Hartley said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun