For UConn, a Matchup Against U.S.A. Basketball Was Also a Reunion

For UConn, a Matchup Against U.S.A. Basketball Was Also a Reunion

HARTFORD, Conn. — The length of the Connecticut women’s basketball dynasty occasionally comes as a shock even to those most responsible for it.

“When I got to campus, it was 1998,” Sue Bird, a former Huskies star who is the starting point guard for U.S.A. Basketball, said during a practice on Sunday, reflecting on the chain of great players who had moved from one team to the other. She paused a moment, doing the math. “So you have 20 years of UConn basketball that’ll be on the floor tomorrow,” she said. “So that’s pretty crazy when you think about it.”

The relationship between the U.S.A. Basketball team and the UConn women’s program, which has won a record 11 N.C.A.A. titles, has long been a cozy one. Nine of the Olympians in U.S.A. Basketball history played for Connecticut.

But the connection has rarely been so illuminated as it was on Monday night at the XL Center, where five former Connecticut players — Bird, Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles and Katie Lou Samuelson — dressed for a U.S.A. Basketball matchup against their alma mater.

“I know these girls there,” said Samuelson, who graduated last year. “Those are my sisters on that team.”

Team U.S.A. won the exhibition, 79-64, but any separation between the two sides felt incidental. When the U.S.A. Basketball roster was announced, home-team level cheers greeted the former Huskies, with Taurasi narrowly edging out Bird and Stewart in decibel level, and the familiar “Louuuuuuuuu” ringing out for Samuelson.

Adding to the sense of reunion, the 2009 and 2010 national championship teams were introduced before tipoff.

The game also included tributes to Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who both died Sunday in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles. The former Lakers star was known to attend UConn games with Gianna, who played basketball and had vowed to reach the W.N.B.A. someday.

The Bryants had become friends with Coach Geno Auriemma and many UConn players, including Stewart, who said Bryant was one of the first people to reach out to her when she got hurt in Europe in April. Stewart honored the pair, as well as the seven others killed in the crash, by writing their names on her shoes.

UConn had flowers on its bench in front of a No. 2 jersey for Gianna. The coaching staffs also wore ribbons in gold and purple, the Lakers’ colors.

Before the start of the game, the teams huddled together at midcourt for a 24-second moment of silence. After the tip, the U.S.A. team took an eight-second backcourt violation and then the Huskies let the 24-second shot clock expire. Those were Bryant’s jersey numbers with the Lakers.

The game was Stewart’s first since she ruptured her right Achilles’ tendon months ago. On the familiar floor, Stewart promptly sank a 3-pointer on her first shot attempt. The crowd cheered the road team.

Those were the only points Stewart would score in her 17 minutes on the court, but her comeback had started.

“Exactly what you would think,” the U.S.A. Basketball assistant coach Cheryl Reeve said of Stewart’s performance. “She looks good, not tentative, played the game well. Obviously there’s a level of conditioning where you’re just trying to survive, but that was the case with some of the other players, too, who didn’t come off of an injury.”

Stewart said before the game that being on the national team reminded her of her time at Connecticut.

“Nobody cares about stats or anything like that, and that’s the biggest thing,” Stewart said. “At UConn, nobody cared about stats, either. It’s ‘We want to win. We want to win national championships,’ and now it’s the same here. We want to win and we want to win gold medals.”

Likewise, Auriemma said he had gained a lot from his eight years as head coach of the national team, and his nearly 30 years in one role or another with U.S.A. Basketball.

Auriemma said he thought if it were up to the former UConn players, they would stay with U.S.A. Basketball until they were 60.

“They’re on the team because they’re the best players in the world,” he said. “And our program’s really proud of that. We take the best high school players, make them into the best college players, then they became the best W.N.B.A. players, then they became the best Olympians.”

While Monday’s game served as an exhibition, it also tested Connecticut, which is 18-1 and ranked fourth in the country. The Huskies are in the middle of a brutal stretch that began with a loss against Baylor, now ranked No. 2, on Jan. 9 and that will include a game against third-ranked Oregon next Monday and one against top-ranked South Carolina a week later.

So even as Auriemma expressed amusement that some of his players had tried things that simply wouldn’t work against Bird the way they would against a typical college guard, he said he was happy with what his young team was learning.

“It’s a great sign when you can get some things done in a game like this,” Auriemma said. “Because that should give you a ton of confidence for anyone you play against.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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