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UConn notebook. Manuel says goodbye, XL Center rocks.

POSTED January 31, 2016
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney

HARTFORD: It’s starting to get fun.

The energy surrounding the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is always high but it’s about to reach an entirely different level as the Huskies round the corner and head down the stretch of the 2015-2016 campaign.

UConn played their final game at the XL Center on Saturday before a loud crowd of 12,047 and it went the way most did during their visits to the old gal, an 83-40 win over Memphis.

But it’s what’s building that you could feel in the arena on this late January contest against another overmatched American Athletic Conference opponent.

On a day that their old Athletic Director flew back from his new job at the University of Michigan to say goodbye, the beat goes on for a program that started the season 20-0 for the ninth time in the past 22 years and won 20 games in a season for the 23 time.

You can’t make this stuff up, what the UConn faithful are seeing. It’s remarkable and the sense in the air on Saturday was that the end of an amazing four year run (from a program that has its share of astounding campaigns) that has been centered on two players, Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart, is getting close to being over and they want to savor every moment.

It’s funny. Right now all eyes are on the UConn/South Carolina game in the Gamecocks home a week from Monday but the Huskies, as is their habit, are always looking towards the ultimate goal of four consecutive titles, something that has never been done and certainly won’t be as easy as any of their AAC games.

While most of this year resembled Saturday, you will remember that three teams have pushed UConn so far this year. Notre Dame, DePaul and Maryland all gave the champions a run for their money and down the line, each of them might get another shot at knocking the champs off the top of the mountain.

Their remaining home games will all be played on campus at Gampel Pavilion, starting next Saturday when they battle East Carolina at 1 p.m.

The head coach felt the energy in the building Saturday as well.

“Wasn’t that a great crowd?” Geno Auriemma said, “I mentioned that to the coaches. You say ‘wow’ when you look up into the upper levels and they are full. Game time has so much to do with the attendance figure. Saturday at noon, weather’s nice. That’s when you like playing here when you get that kind of crowd because it really makes a difference.”

Nine regular season games remain, five at home, four on the road.

The buildup will continue, even after the South Carolina encounter.

Keep watching Huskie Nation, who knows when you will ever see something like this again.

….Former Athletic Director Warde Manuel was on hand and spoke to the media at halftime.

How much respect has the now Michigan AD built up in CT?

Consider that most of the media missed the first four minutes of the second half to talk with him and that should tell you something.

On a personal note, since we came onto the UConn scene three years back, Manuel is the only AD we have ever dealt with and at every turn, he has been a gentlemen and treated all of us very well.

The firm handshake and genuine appreciation for what we do was evident from the start and remained that way on Saturday when he shook my hand, thanked us for what we do and wished us luck.

His outgoing personality and obvious passion for both academics and athletics is what made him a hit at the University and with those who followed the programs he oversaw.

“When you approach a job,” Manuel said, “You hope you leave the place better than when you started. I’ll leave it to others to talk about my legacy here but I’m proud of the academic success of our student athletes we have had here.”

Manuel led the transition from the Big East break up to the AAC and getting the men’s basketball team back on track in the classrooms was front and center on the list of accomplishments he can take with him.

The numerous national championships in multiple sports to start.

For us, we will remember the firm handshakes and big smile he greeted you with each and every time he saw you. Be it at Gampel or in the hallway of Madison Square Garden, he never seemed overwhelmed by the job and enjoyed the time when the action was on the most.

Seeing him back in his familiar chair at the XL was a little surreal, even to Manuel but he appreciated the responses he received from the fans who thanked him and wished him well.

Some will say his biggest shortfall may have been not getting the University into a Power 5 Conference but those criticisms, to me anyway, are way off.

It’s simple not that easy to do. If getting a seat at the big table was that easy, Manuel would have run through a wall to get UConn in.

You have to figure, and he eluded to it during his remarks, that the Huskies have a fan who may at some point have the opportunity to continue pushing for the university he just left but his main focus has to be with the Wolverines, a place he hold near and dear to his heart.

….UConn forced 34 turnovers while allowing just 16 baskets against the Tigers on Saturday. Stewart led the way with 19 points while four other players finished in double figures.

Natalie Butler scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds in 19 minutes but the head coach is looking for more.

“I’d like to see Nat get a couple of offensive fouls called,” Auriemma said, “Where she just levels somebody going to the basket really hard. Or somebody comes in the lane and she really knocks them on their ass and she raises her hand and says ‘yeah, that was my foul’ I’d like to see her take advantage of her size. I think she’s still a little tentative. That might be because she has not played in a while or she’s just trying to get acclimated. I think in time, if you think about how many games she has played here for us it’s not a lot, that with each game and each practice, we are getting closer to where there is a big physical presence inside.”

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