STORRS, Conn. — The first so cool came at the door, after Jefferson University’s women’s basketball team got off their bus outside Gampel Pavilion. Their entry door noted the NCAA championships won by the team inside.
The Rams had been intentionally early for Sunday’s exhibition game at Connecticut. They walked out to center court for selfies, some going 360 degrees to take in the whole place, aware they were standing at the epicenter of their sport over the last quarter-century.
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“Sit on his nose,’’ one freshman said to another, referring to the Huskies logo at center court.
The group wandered around, noting differences from their Division II place back on Henry Avenue, like at the concession stand on the concourse. (macaroni and cheese!) After players got dressed, the group was given a tour of the practice facility, starting with the crystal displayed in the front lobby for all the NCAA titles, men and women.
Players lingered at the interactive display board, where they could take a photo (putting in their email address to get it sent to any of them directly), the group mugging in front of a green screen, one photo suddenly of them celebrating with Breanna Stewart after a UConn national title. They didn’t know that Stewart herself was in the building, that she would be watching them play.
“He’s it,’’ Jefferson coach Tom Shirley said of his sport’s epicenter, referring to coach Geno Auriemma and those 11 NCAA titles he’s won. Shirley had enjoyed when he’d gotten his own escort to the locker room from a state trooper several years back when they’d played a similar exhibition in Hartford.
Shirley’s two big memories from that time: Stewart’s pinning a shot to a Jefferson shooter’s forehead, and what Shirley called the “little help” play.” A Rams shot blocked into the sixth row, the ref had turned to the crowd: “A little help.”
The earlier game had come about because Auriemma had spoken at the Montgomery County Sports Hall of Fame. Noting that league rival Post had played an exhibition at UConn the year before, that Division I teams can’t play exhibition games against other Division I teams, Shirley went up to Auriemma, “Yo, my man, you can’t help out your friend?”
“You want to come up next year?”
Shirley figures he and Auriemma were aware of each other since high school days, the UConn 35th-year coach being from Norristown, the Jefferson U 31st-year coach from Plymouth Meeting. They became friendly as they got into their coaching careers.
During warmups, Jefferson point guard and captain Alynna Williams had bumped into a UConn player, had offered a sorry, she said later, didn’t get similar words back.
“She looked at me like I had two heads,’’ Williams said to her teammates walking back in the locker room. “I’m fired up.”
Shirley noted before the game to his assistants how when his players are 35 years old, this day will be a bigger memory than those they won or lost.
“I keep reminding myself, this is a college facility,’’ Williams said, although the visitors’ locker room isn’t much different from what they have in Division II.
“Ready to go — double-double?’’ Shirley said to his center, Sabria Lytes.
“Oh …. Oooooh,’’ Lytes responded, breaking into a belly laugh. Shirley laughed, too.
Shirley’s pregame talk was about how if a shot got blocked it got blocked, he didn’t want to see anybody passing the ball off out of fear. Box out, put them on your back, see if they get over-the-top foul calls. He knew UConn would be working on its press.
Shirley asked his assistants for thoughts. Jen McCarthy harped on no lazy passes, they’d be gobbled up, taken the other way. Kevin McKenna mentioned this experience would be a career highlight for the people in that room. Matt Bamford pointed out that UConn would, in fact, be going all out for 40 minutes.
“There’s a reason they won those 11 national championships,’’ Bamford said.
“Just go play — girls playing girls,’’ Shirley said.
They talked about more or less conceding the center tap and having three defenders back since, although Lytes is a shade of 6-foot, she was still giving up four inches at the tip.
UConn moved the ball around, got a baseline drive and a hoop, and Jefferson’s first pass went to UConn, a steal off the inbounds, another Huskies hoop.
The Huskies are young, ranked only fifth nationally preseason. But Jefferson’s top returning scorer is out for the season, so 77 percent of the scoring from 2018-19 was gone from a Division II NCAA tournament team.
Williams hit a deep three for Jefferson’s first points, putting the Rams within 7-3, but the Jefferson goal of keeping UConn under 100 seemed out of reach after the Huskies put up 27 points in the first quarter and 31 in the second, committing only one team foul in each quarter.
After three quarters, it was 85-28. By the end, 103-40. More points than last time, and a closer margin, noted sports information director Rob Cunningham. Not his job to mention how UConn had 22 steals.
After the game, Shirley didn’t talk much about UConn to his team, just how “shooting is plaguing us,’’ that the rebounding disparity (52-30) was understandable, that they’d now have to cut down on turnovers, and players have to be ready to carry their own offensive load. He’d basically switched into “time for the real season” mode, since it starts Saturday against Queens College.
Putting up 40 points — “It’s such a good memory to have,’’ said Williams, a Plymouth-Whitemarsh High graduate, mentioning specific plays by teammates, a block here, a drive there. Hitting a deep three, hearing an Oooh from the crowd, kind of “felt unreal that I actually hit a three against UConn,’’ Williams said after scoring a dozen points. “It kind of raised my confidence up.”
Her crossover move did, too — heard the crowd that time, too.
“Of course, it was a million-dollar move, ten-cent finish.”
Rams forward Allie Warren noted the time she caught the backside of a UConn player in her chest, but somehow “I fouled her.”
What, they’re supposed to check their competitiveness at the door just because there are a bunch of titles listed above it?
The vaunted Huskies had not caused anybody from Philadelphia to lose their sense of humor. Bamford, a fifth-year assistant to Shirley, scanned the box score just before the head coach came into the locker room.