LOS ANGELES -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma has an immense appreciation for sports history, and being in a basketball shrine like Pauley Pavilion is definitely important to him. Tuesday was the second time he has coached in the arena that the "Wizard of Westwood," UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, made famous with his men's championship teams of the 1960s and '70s.
"To look up and see the banners and the names of the jerseys that have been retired, it is a special place," Auriemma said after his Huskies' 78-60 victory over the Bruins. "I don't think there's any place in America that -- for college -- has the significance that this place has. It has a history that I don't think any other college campus can match."
Well, there is one: Auriemma's own campus at UConn. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut -- where the Huskies play most of their home games, save for a few every season at the XL Center in Hartford -- is every bit the cathedral of champions for women's basketball as Pauley is for men's hoops. Gampel has 11 NCAA women's title banners, and the way the Huskies have started this season, there's no reason to think they won't be hanging a 12th in 2018.
Tuesday, Auriemma's top-ranked Huskies pleased him not just by winning but by showing more of themselves. He realized it would be good to throw a little knowledge at the players after the game. Tell them that the tough, smart, gritty way they played matched the building they did it in -- an arena that had a decidedly electric atmosphere with 9,263 in attendance.
"We grew up as a team a little bit today," he said. "Every team has to figure out its own identity, you know? If we had come in here and there was 1,000 or 2,000 people and the place was dead, and it would be just another game, you really wouldn't know that much. But we came in and the way the environment was, and the team we played -- how good they are -- we created a little bit of an identity for ourselves. Tonight was a big night for us. Really, really big."
Consider the play of junior forward Napheesa Collier, who started the season 15 of 33 from the field in the Huskies' opening three victories. That's 45.5 percent, which is not bad for a lot of players. But it's colder than a metal bench in the Arctic for Collier, who shot 67.8 percent last season.
So Auriemma's message to Collier was: Shoot your way out of it, kid. He told Collier he didn't want to see her passing the ball out of the post. Generally, a huge part of UConn's success is consistent passing, as the Huskies move the ball around to get the best possible shot. But in this case, Auriemma wanted Collier's mojo boosted as a shooter, so he didn't want her passing up shots.
Collier finished 9 of 15 from the field (60 percent) for a game-high 23 points. It seemed clear that Collier got back on track -- not that she was ever really that off.
"With Pheesa, for whatever reason, she's been tentative," Auriemma said. "Now, some of it is she hurt her foot when we were in Italy [during the summer] and I think it's still bothering her a little. The other part was I spent the first month of practice yelling at her all the time about, 'You stink; you can't play defense. You have to get more involved in everything else other than just scoring.' "
Auriemma said perhaps that dented Collier's confidence on offense, too. But Tuesday, she looked back to her usual self.
Freshman Megan Walker showed a healthy dose of confidence, too. She hit her first five shots from the field -- including three 3-pointers -- and finished with 13 points. Crystal Dangerfield (17 points) and Kia Nurse (11) also scored in double figures.
UConn was without junior guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson, who grew up not that far away from Pauley Pavilion in Huntington Beach, California. She wasn't able to play because of the foot injury she suffered in UConn's victory over Cal last Friday. Samuelson is in a walking boot and will miss at least the next two games.
"I know we're not going to score as many points without Lou," Auriemma said. "But if you play on a team, you need guys to step up. And Megan did so today.
"Today we found another player that can help us. Toughest game in the toughest environment, and she played her best game. We came out of here with Pheesa getting better and Megan earning some trust from her teammates and coaching staff. Those are huge -- maybe more important than the win tonight."
But UCLA, ranked No. 5 and coming off an upset of Baylor on Saturday, got something from this game, too. The Bruins, led by 15 points apiece from Monique Billings and Jordin Canada, didn't do everything they hoped. But they got a good idea of what they want their team to be as the season goes on.
"What the standard looks like," Canada said of what she learned from facing UConn. "It taught us we're not there yet. But it shows where we're going to be. I thought we had some moments that showed, 'This is what UCLA basketball is.'
"But it teaches us, 'This is what excellence is.' And that's UConn. How they execute, the way they pass, their communication, their energy. And they had fun at the same time."
Auriemma would appreciate that assessment, especially coming here. He has always been cautious whenever someone compares him and his program to Wooden and the UCLA men's legacy. But he realizes it's also impossible not to see the similarity.
"When I walked in here [Monday] for practice, it did dawn on me," Auriemma said. "There are so many parallels between what happened here in all those years and what's happened for us. Obviously, different eras and different circumstances, men's basketball and women's basketball.
"But the iconic players that Coach Wooden coached, they match up with the iconic players I've coached. The wins, the streaks, the championships -- you could put up a mirror and we would see a lot of ourselves in each other."