By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
The final buzzer sounded on another lopsided victory for the top-ranked Connecticut women’s basketball team – win number 86 in a row for the Huskies – and the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd stood and applauded.
Not that Hall of Fame coach Gino Auriemma needed another reminder of why he brought his powerhouse program to Lincoln, but there it was, just in case.
Nebraska, a team in transition that finished its nonconference schedule 4-8, drew 7,553 on a midweek night during the week before Christmas. To put that into perspective, that’s bigger than three crowds Connecticut has drawn at home this season.
“I wasn’t surprised by it,” Auriemma said after his team’s 84-41 victory Wednesday night. “I think this particular school, number one, has a tremendous fan base and a very passionate fan base. We were talking, I’m sure if they were undefeated, there would’ve been 10, 11, 12 thousand people here, probably.
“But they’re in a transition period here in their program. That doesn’t mean the fans don't appreciate what they’re trying to do and support them. I’m sure if this game was on a weekend, we would’ve had even more people.”
First-year Nebraska coach Amy Williams was equally pleased with the biggest crowd of the season – by 2,000 people – to watch her young Husker team.
Pleased, but certainly not surprised.
“It’s just something that makes this place so special,” Williams said. “Incredibly pleased with this crowd and not surprised at all. I know that Husker fans just appreciate great basketball, and you bring the No. 1 team in the country to come in, I think they get excited about those types of opponents.”
Connecticut, of course, is used to drawing big crowds wherever it goes. The Huskies played before 12,528 fans at Kansas State, and 9,149 fans at Notre Dame, making Wednesday the third-largest road crowd to see them this season. They also drew 4,753 at Florida State, ranked No. 12 at the time, and 3,806 at LSU.
This, after all, is a program that has 11 national titles, 17 Final Fours, six perfect seasons and 43 conference titles (regular season and tournaments combined) in 31 years under Auriemma.
One of those Final Four berths the Huskies clinched in Pinnacle Bank Arena in 2014. Nebraska had fallen short of qualifying as a host team but local fans still supported that NCAA Regional, which drew nearly 17,000 fans for three games.
That alone impressed Auriemma to sign Nebraska to a home-and-home series.
Of course, Nebraska’s program has undergone change since then, and Auriemma was understanding.
“It’s going to take time,” he said. “Whenever you change coaches, whenever you have some of the turnover they’ve had, it’s going to take some time. That doesn’t change the atmosphere in this building.
“This is one of the best buildings in all of America. I really, thoroughly enjoyed my last visit here, and nothing’s changed my mind.”
Connecticut has won 86 straight games, including 29 straight road games. This was the Huskies’ 99th straight true road victory against unranked teams, a streak that dates to a 2004 loss at Arizona State.
Overall, they’ve beaten 115 consecutive unranked foes. Now 11-0, six of those victories have come against ranked teams.
“The stretch that we’ve had since Nov. 14, the teams that we’ve had to play, the places that we’ve had to go to, some of our opponents, it’s been very trying, a very difficult time,” Auriemma said. “My expectations for tonight, I didn’t necessarily expect us, coming off exams and the Ohio State game (an 82-63 home victory), that we were going to play exceptionally well, but I thought for long stretches we did a lot of great stuff.”
Auriemma and Williams had no prior connections. The two met briefly before the game, when Williams said she welcomed the legendary coach back to Lincoln, knowing his glowing comments from his initial visit in 2014.
“I just asked him if he had any advice for a new coach,” Williams said. “It was brief. I wish I could sit down and have a long dinner with him and pick his brain several hours. It certainly was fun to meet him today.”
Auriemma said he knew only of Williams’ history at South Dakota but didn’t know her personally.
“Being thrown into this situation and going from where she was to the Big Ten, it’s a big challenge, obviously,” he said. “But when you watch them, when you see some of the things they do, they do a lot of great stuff. They don’t have the same personnel to be able to pull it off. In time, that will happen.”
Williams, whose team has a week-long break before beginning Big Ten Conference play Dec. 28 at home against Northwestern, said she’s stressing to her players to create better habits and to learn to put together more complete stretches of play.
“Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training, and right now we need to improve the level of our training,” Williams said. “We’ve got to create habits, when we revert to them, that are a little more competitive.”
“We’re excited to be headed into a much-needed little break here to step away and recharge and refresh and get back in and get ready for Big Ten play,” she said. “Right now, our team has a good chance to look at this as a good chance to kind of refresh and come back and get back after it again.”
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