College Sports

Friendly connections led to UC Davis hosting No. 1 Connecticut in women’s basketball

Chris Dailey and Geno Auriemma have been there.

They remember the scheduling challenges when they took their jobs at Connecticut 30 years ago – Auriemma as head coach, Dailey as his top assistant. Teams weren’t eager to travel to play the Huskies.

“We weren’t at the top, but we were trying to get there,” Dailey said of the first three seasons, when the Huskies were 43-39. “In trying to build a program, it’s not easy to get the top teams to come and play at your place. So we had to play on the road a lot.”

Connecticut, the pre-eminent program in women’s college basketball, has won nine NCAA titles and has a 46-game winning streak entering Friday’s season opener and expected sellout at UC Davis’ Pavilion.

When it comes to scheduling, Auriemma and Dailey now call the shots, but they haven’t forgotten their past. So when UC Davis coach Jennifer Gross suggested playing, they made it work.

“We’re understanding of both ends,” Dailey said. “To bring a quality team into your area that people rarely get to see live is important and helps grow the game.”

Connecticut travels West every few years to play rival Stanford, which the Huskies will do again Monday. In 2007, Connecticut played at San Diego State but since then, it has tried to play at least two games on West Coast swings. The Huskies played at Stanford and Pacific in 2010 and at Stanford and Oregon in 2012.

Gross saw how much buzz can be created for an under-the-radar program when she watched the UC Davis men play Long Beach State in front of an announced capacity crowd of 5,670 and a national television audience in 2013 at the Pavilion.

“I walked in the gym, and it was one of the most incredible environments I’ve been a part of,” Gross said. “The students were unbelievable; the fans were amazing. I said to myself, ‘I wish our players could get the chance to play in this kind of environment where everyone is cheering for you.’ That was our goal. We went out and got UConn on the schedule. Our players deserve that opportunity to play in such a fun, electric atmosphere.”

The women’s team, which averaged 717 fans last season, got a taste of what it was like to play in front of a large home crowd earlier that season. The Aggies hosted then-No. 1 Stanford and renowned coach Tara VanDerveer in a game the Cardinal won 87-38before an announced attendance of 2,612.

“I think Geno is so much like Tara in that they want what’s best for women’s basketball, and they know that coming and playing at the Pavilion is good for women’s basketball,” Gross said of the two Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coaches. “To have a sellout crowd at UC Davis is great for women’s basketball.”

Credit Gross for a great sales job, using her connections and friendly personality to bring Breanna Stewart, the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, and another star-studded Connecticut team to the Pavilion.

Dailey would run into Gross during summer recruiting when the former Aggies star worked as an assistant under head coach Sandy Simpson.

“I go out to Oregon for this big tournament in the summer, and I’d always see them, and they were very nice,” Dailey said. “Sometimes when you come from the East Coast, not everyone is happy to see you.”

And since Gross became the head coach four years ago, Dailey says she constantly gets updates on the Aggies while working out at her Connecticut gym. Fellow gym member Jeff Winnick, an attorney, was a college roommate of Gross’ father and the best man at his wedding.

Dailey said Winnick was ecstatic when the Aggies played Connecticut last season in Hartford, Conn. The Huskies won 97-37 in front of more than 8,000 fans.

“It’s a small world,” said Dailey, whose niece, Brittany Manley, is a 2009 UCD graduate. “He was so excited to see Jenn. And it’s the one time he sat on the visitors’ side because he usually roots for us.”

While Auriemma handles scheduling, Dailey didn’t mind acting as a go-between. But she said it was Gross who closed the deal with her boss.

Gross admits she pulled out all the stops. She even made it a point to tell Auriemma that Davis isn’t far from wine country.

“Most people know Geno is a big wine connoisseur,” Gross said, smiling. “But I don’t think he realized that we’re so close to Napa. That did it for him, though he probably would have come anyway. But I threw it in for good measure.”

While many expect a rout, Dailey said she admires Gross’ moxie and thinks it was a smart move that will only help Gross’ players.

“Give Jenn a lot of credit, because not a lot of people would play a home-and-home with us,” Dailey said. “But that says a lot about her and about where she wants the program to go. Games like this help you not only with recruiting but help prepare your team for conference battles. I know that they had a pretty good run at the end of last season and they are more experienced this year. We followed them after we played them last year, and it will be neat to see how they do this year.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

FRIDAY’S GAME

CONNECTICUT AT UC DAVIS

▪ Where: The Pavilion

▪ When: 7 p.m.

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