March 23, 2010
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - In Tonya Cardoza's first season as the head coach at Temple, former boss Geno Auriemma said she constantly sent him text messages about her many struggles.
But that was last year, her first in 15 away from the powerhouse that is Connecticut.
"To be honest, I was spoiled," Cardoza said Monday. "I had coached greatness, been a part of greatness. I hadn't lost many games and, to be honest, I was just being a big baby."
This year, the messages stopped as Cardoza and her team found a comfort zone, the systems she installed took hold and the success they enjoyed in her first season got more consistent.
Cardoza and the Owls (25-8) will find out how far they have come, and perhaps how far they need to go, on Tuesday night when they face the juggernaut that is Auriemma and the Huskies in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament in the Dayton region.
UConn (34-0) has won an NCAA women's record 73 games in a row, all by double figures, and is widely seen as the favorite to finish a second consecutive season as unbeaten national champions.
The former assistant is using all of that in trying to prepare her team.
"This is one of the best teams ev-er," she said she's told them, accenting both syllables for effect. "Not just the No. 1 team in this country right now, but one of the best teams ever, and this is something that you will want to go out and enjoy ... take advantage of.
"There's no reason to be nervous. We don't have anything to lose."
In the good-natured back-and-forth between the mentor and pupil, Auriemma said Cardoza was like a lost puppy when she first joined his staff, and she has tried to downplay the sideshow of the matchup while adding it would be a huge story if the Owls can win.
In reality, she said, Auriemma's impact on her career can't be overstated.
"I worship the ground that he walks on," she said, adding that even while making her own way, she borrows heavily from his. "I don't go out and try to be like him, but I find myself doing so many things, saying so many things because I've been around him for so long."
Where they differ, Auriemma said, is in how they will approach the game.
As the mentor in the relationship, which he's already experienced by going against former UConn star guard Jennifer Rizzotti's teams at Hartford, former player and 12-year assistant Jamelle Elliott's team at Cincinnati or now Cardoza's Owls, he's like a proud father.
"I root for them to play great, to make every shot, make a great account of themselves, be proud of themselves and feel good about themselves, and then go home. Losers," he said.
Cardoza said pulling a stunning upset on Tuesday night would make her "ecstatic," but that it would also be bittersweet because of the deep ties she still has to the program.
When Auriemma was the underdog pupil, he said he felt much differently.
"My first experience was when I was in the Final Four for the very first time in 1991 and we happened to draw Virginia and Debbie Ryan," he said. He had been Ryan's lead assistant at Virginia from 1981-85, and left to take over the then-struggling program in Storrs, Conn.
"I wanted to beat (them) so bad and win a national championship, but I would think afterwards you would feel, 'Man, I can't believe we had to go through them to win."