Geno Auriemma's 1,000th victory comes according to plan

Geno captures 1,000th win (2:07)

Geno Auriemma becomes the fastest coach in D1 history to 1,000 wins, as UConn cruises past Oklahoma 88-64. (2:07)

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- There were balloons and faux $1,000 bills that fell from the rafters. There were speeches about the guest of honor and a speech by the same. There were players from the past. There was a cake.

That there were no elephants or acrobats was perhaps some kind of oversight.

Auriemma's 1,000th career win, making the coach with 11 national titles the fastest in women's basketball to reach four digits, offered only fleeting drama but ample spectacle. Even against an opponent with a Final Four pedigree, that once played Connecticut for a national title, the minutes ticked away less like a measure of a competition than a countdown on New Year's Eve.

There had to be another team involved, if only for appearances. But the night was about self-reflection. About a program that created the aura that drew players like those on the court from every corner of the country. A program that inspired former players to return. And about all of the people, the players and coaches, who earned the loyalty of those who filled the arena.

"We poured our heart and soul into this," Auriemma told the crowd that stuck around en masse for an extended postgame celebration, his voice quavering with emotion as he spoke of himself and associate head coach Chris Dailey. "And we've gotten more back than we ever deserved."

He wasn't talking about the Huskies' performance Tuesday, which was merely good enough to put away a willing competitor that cut a double-digit deficit to seven points in the third quarter.

He meant the past 32 years.

Indeed, the evening's best tribute was that all of it was planned with such confidence. Invitations could be extended and supplies stockpiled, secure in the knowledge that Auriemma's team would cooperate. And it did, beating Oklahoma 88-64 in the Women's Holiday Showcase.

His team wins 88 percent of the time, 91 percent of the time since his first three seasons.

"He has set the bar at a crazy high level," Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. "It's both the way his teams play and the way they conduct themselves. It's total class, and the momentum that he has been able to capture and ride through a couple of decades is almost incomprehensible."

Had he come along a decade later, perhaps his would have been a path similar to Coale's. The University of Oklahoma coach came from the local high school ranks in Norman, Oklahoma, to rebuild a moribund program -- and build it into a national contender for the first time. There is little argument about her place among the upper echelon of women's basketball coaches, as a motivator, and with Tuesday as the latest example, a tactician able to identity vulnerabilities.

But in a sport in which UConn and Tennessee already reigned when she arrived on the scene, in which Baylor, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame and another handful of programs matched or followed Oklahoma's rise, the Sooners didn't win a title and aren't on every recruit's short list. There is only so much a coach, any coach, can do to alter events from the sideline.

That much Auriemma learned when he arrived in 1985. His first team, which was here Tuesday and celebrated amid the confetti with the current players when it was over, went 12-15. It was an improvement on the previous season but remains Auriemma's only losing record.

"I remember thinking that it was going to be really easy," Auriemma said of that first season that began with seven wins in a row. "I thought how could it be hard? I was so self-assured, so cocky and so full of myself. Of course it was going to be easy. There was no way I could fail. There was no way I could not live up to the expectations that I had for myself or that people had for me that hired me.

"It wasn't until the middle of January, maybe early February that it started to dawn on me, 'Man, you are not as good as you thought you were. You're only going to be as good as the players you're going to be able to get here.' "

It takes nothing away from Auriemma and Dailey to say they arrived at the right moment, after Title IX had time to breathe, and at a time when a willing foil awaited in Tennessee. And he and Dailey made the most of it.

The laziest explanation available for UConn's success is that it wins so regularly because it gets all the good players. Such analysis, even if intended as a compliment, diminishes the work that goes on once players arrive in Storrs and how much those players improve. It demeans the sacrifices they make for one another, how the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts -- even when the parts are pretty darn good on their own. But as Auriemma suggested, genius is an easier act to pull off when surrounded by talent. They made UConn a destination.

At one point during the 13-3 run that answered Oklahoma pulling to within single digits, Azurá Stevens received the ball on the block, spun and glided under the basket in a graceful motion to set up a reverse layup. The Sooners didn't have anyone who could stop that. They didn't have anyone who could do that. And UConn doesn't even start Stevens, the Duke transfer who finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists.

"I think this is the first moment that I've really been able to feel like a part of it and adding to something," Stevens said. "Last year it was the 100th [win] in a row or whatever, and I was on the team, but I wasn't playing. So it was kind of a different feel. But this was special because I added something to this. On the court, I added something to Coach's 1,000th."

They all talk like that. They always have. It can be almost grating on cynical ears. But then you watch the way they pass, the way they defend, the way they react to each other. It grows easier and easier to believe that they believe it. It grows easier to believe it yourself.

"What's so great about them, what we're so fortunate to be a part of in this program, is they genuinely want you to be better basketball players but better people as well," Kia Nurse said. "And they go out of their way each and every day they come back. They have the passion for this game and the passion to make you a better person. When people care about you for an extended period of time, that's why you see all these people coming back."

It wasn't really about the number.

The number is just the easiest way to wrap our minds around the incomprehensible.

"Little over the top, don't you think?" Auriemma quipped of the evening. "It was a little much. I think we could have done without some of the stuff that was floating around that's in my underwear right now."