NASHVILLE — Large margins of victory have been commonplace for the UConn women this season, bringing them to the Final Four in Nashville unbeaten and essentially unchallenged.
Yet, just as common is this: No matter how large the UConn lead might be, how much they win by, it does not affect how the team plays. Sweat and effort to the cause remain a constant, an obligation each player takes to heart regardless of the time, score and circumstance.
And it's hard not to notice what happens when talent and desire converge in the UConn Way. Basically, don't take a play off, not in a practice, not in a game. Coach Geno Auriemma always has preached that letting up might lead to a bad habit, and that could come back to get you in a big moment in a big game.
"Some team might be able to beat them, but no one is ever going to outwork them," said St. Joseph's coach Cindy Griffin after her team lost to the Huskies in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
When UConn President Susan Herbst thinks about what it takes from Auriemma to inspire high school All-Americans to accept the selfless philosophy after years of teenage adulation, she sees a similarity to what she tries to encourage.
"Very few people realize that what I do is coaching, too," Herbst said. "I have learned a lot from coaches in my career. They enforce discipline and accountability to get the best performance from their student-athletes. That is exactly what deans and department chairs need; we need people to do their best on behalf of UConn. ... My expectations for UConn are very, very high. I expect everyone here to work as hard, and with as much pride and discipline and good nature, as our men's and women's basketball teams do. They have a drive for excellence that we all need to have."
Many of Auriemma's players have had a high degree of dedication to the program, one that's personal, that goes beyond the court. As much as they want to win, they don't want to fail Auriemma or themselves. They feel they are part of something much larger than themselves.
"That is one of the biggest things that drives me," former UConn guard Kelly Faris said last year. "I don't want to disappoint him by not playing hard for him."
That results in moments like Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' diving over the press table for a loose ball in a rout. Like Breanna Stewart's running the length of the floor to block a shot in a rout. Like Moriah Jefferson's diving into a scrum for a loose ball in a rout.
This is the essence of Auriemma's coaching greatness. But the other coaches who will compete with UConn for the national championship have all enjoyed a continuum of success. Stanford, Maryland and Notre Dame have all won national championships for the coaches who still lead them.
"Well, I don't feel like it's them giving me anything," Stanford's Tara VanDerveer said about inspiring effort. "I feel that we kind of try to set up practices and conditioning to make the games in some ways easier and fun. ... They have trained hard and practiced hard and been drilled in situations. The games are almost like taking a final that you're really ready for. You're excited to do well. So they're not doing it for me, they're proving things for themselves."
This is the way Auriemma operates, too. His track record (eight national championships, one Olympic gold medal, already in the Basketball Hall of Fame) gives him immediate street credibility with recruits and players. When he talks, they listen. What he says, they believe.
And he holds players accountable — dangling playing time in front of them, threatening them even for poor practice habits. He makes no promises other than that he will demand things from them and support them.
"Well, yeah, it's something that we take great pride in, how hard we work every day, how hard we work in the offseason, and how hard we work in the preseason, how we maintain that during the season," Auriemma said. "We used to do that in the 1980s, too, and we weren't any good. We didn't make the NCAA Tournament. The last 20-some years we've worked just as hard, we do the same thing, we work our butts off; we have high expectations for our players."
The players, of course, know that before they even get to Storrs.
"Coming to Connecticut, you know that you're always going to be in the spotlight," Stewart said. "The goal each year is always to win a national championship, and that's what I wanted when I was coming out of high school. I wanted to go somewhere where I was going to reach my full potential and have opportunities to win a national championship, and the first year it was a success and we're trying to do it again."
Senior Stefanie Dolson knows no other place but the Final Four.
"I didn't necessarily think we'd make it every year," Dolson said. "Coming to Connecticut, seeing [the banners] up there, there are expectations. ... So for us, I knew coming here the expectations were high, but after looking back three years, and this being the fourth, it's great to know that Bri [Hartley] and I made it four times in a row. Not a lot of people can say they did that. It's something that we won't forget."
So although Auriemma's players know what the expectations are when they arrive, they don't necessarily know how to get there.
That's where he and his staff come in. So what he does to help the process is create a challenging atmosphere in practice, one that seldom is replicated in actual games. He alters the playing field in imaginative ways, adding defenders to create mismatches that his offensive players must overcome.
And how does one do that? By working harder to succeed.
"So once you create that challenge, then all of a sudden they start to look for challenges," Auriemma said. "But they need to be challenged every minute of every day."
"I don't think they face enough challenges throughout their high school careers. So that's one of the biggest things we try to teach them: Embrace the challenge, embrace how hard it is. That's what makes winning so special."
Matt McDonough contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun