Geno Auriemma knows what it's like to build a program from the bottom up. The University of Connecticut women's basketball team had one winning season before his arrival in Storrs in 1985. Today, Auriemma has the highest winning percentage for a coach in NCAA history and the 11-time national champion Huskies are second all-time to Tennessee in wins.
He's also watched Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri build her program from Division II into a nationally-known Division I club, and that included her team hitting rock bottom.
When No. 1 UConn entertains the ninth-seeded Bobcats on Monday in an NCAA tournament Albany (New York) Regional second-round game at Gampel Pavilion, it will be their first postseason meeting and second overall. On Dec. 27, 1998, the Huskies routed Quinnipiac -- which was in its first season in Division I -- 117-20. Auriemma had four players on his roster that would go on to play in the Olympics. Fabbri had players that were originally recruited to play against the likes of LeMoyne, Stonehill, American International and Merrimack.
"We had a really, really good team, maybe as good a team as we had up to that point," Auriemma said at his Sunday press conference. "With any scheduling thing, a lot of times people contact us and say, 'Hey, we want to play.' At the time, they were just getting started. I think we were better than the team we have now in some ways. We were hard to play against.
"A lot of times, teams will want to play us and give their kids a chance to see, 'Hey, this is what it's like.' I never put pressure on teams to play us. If they don't want to play us, they don't want to. Now, Quinnipiac hasn't called since. I think we did have an agreement to play them, but something came up and we had to postpone it. I'm sure we'll do it again."
Monday's winner moves on to the regional semifinals at the Times Union Center in Albany and will face either No. 4 Georgia or fifth-seeded Duke this Saturday.
UConn (33-0) is seeking its 25th consecutive Sweet 16 berth, the longest current streak in NCAA tournament play. The Huskies, who routed No. 16 Saint Francis (Pa.) 140-52 on Saturday, have also not lost a NCAA tournament home game since 1993. Quinnipiac is the third in-state team they have hosted in tournament play following Fairfield (1998) and Hartford (2011).
The Bobcats (28-5) hope to return to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year following their surprising run in 2017 when they, as a 12-seed, stunned No. 5 Marquette and No. 4 Miami (Fla). Their 86-72 win over the Hurricanes on Saturday was no upset, though, as they used a strong fourth quarter to win.
Quinnipiac made a lot of noise state-wide a year ago -- when Fabbri was shown on a video board at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport during UConn's Sweet 16 game with UCLA, she received a loud ovation from the pro-UConn crowd.
A win Monday night and the stir will be felt around the country.
"We have a game plan in place," Fabbri said. "We're going to go out and practice for two hours and get our girls ready. We have stayed right on point with how we go about preparing as a staff, preparing as a team and staying right in our lane with how we go about our business. Our mindset, everything stayed the same and we have our game plan ready to go for tomorrow and we are ready to go practice it for two hours after this.
"We are going to get a chance, 20 years later, to see what we have been able to accomplish in those years."
Quinnipiac uses a balanced attack with only two players -- Jen Fay and Aryn McClure -- averaging in double figures and two more -- Carly Fabbri, the coach's daughter, and Paula Strautmane -- checking in at just under 10 points per game. Against Miami, six of the eight players the coach used reached double figures, led by Fay's 19.
The Bobcats shoot a respectable 34 percent from behind the arc -- half of their shots against Miami were from 3-point land -- and all five of their starters have more assists than turnovers.
"They do what most good teams do, they maximize their personnel," Auriemma said. "They put them in spots to be successful. They get the most out of each possession and they don't waste possessions. Their defense allows them to stay in games and they've got enough palyers who make shots to be dangerous. I remember having a team like that back in the day and we couldn't wait to play teams like the team I have now."
UConn and Quinnipiac have one common opponent -- Michigan State. The Huskies defeated the Spartans 96-62 on Nov. 25 in Eugene, Oregon, while the Bobcats dropped a 74-55 decision in East Lansing on Dec. 18.
Quinnipiac has won 23 straight games since, including its perfect run through its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schedule.
"We're expecting them to be really ready to play and they're a really good team that plays really well together," UConn guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. "They play really hard and they have some good shooters and some good matchups going. We all have to be ready to go one through five to be able to guard our man."
All 11 available Huskies saw double-figure minutes in the win over Saint Francis, with Azura Stevens having 26 points in 15 minutes and Napheesa Collier 25 points, five rebounds, nine assists and four steals in 17 minutes.
Monday's contest will be the final appearance at Gampel Pavilion for seniors Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse. The Class of 2018 is 34-0 at its on-campus home.
"We don't get to play here that often, but when we do it's just so electric," Williams said. "In women's basketball, you don't usually see a student section like the one we have. The fact that our students are so supportive of us is so fun. They make us play harder and make me play harder.
"I'm still going in there like it's our second game of the tournament. It's not like Senior Night when there is a lot of emotion. We do have a goal here, and we're focused on that. I'm sure after I will look back and be pretty sad, because I always loved playing here."
With a win, Williams and Nurse would become the third UConn class to go unbeaten at home -- counting games on and off campus -- during their four-year careers, joining the Class of 2011 (Maya Moore/Lorin Dixon) and the Class of 2017 (Saniya Chong/Tierney Lawlor).
"It's their last Gampel game ever so we want to make sure we have a great game for them and for our team, too," Samuelson said.