STORRS, Conn. -- It was 26 years ago -- Nov. 24, 1991, to be exact -- that Rebecca Lobo played her first game for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team as the Huskies took on California in Berkeley.
The coincidence that Lobo will become the first former UConn player to have her own banner recognizing her 2017 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame placed in Gampel Pavilion on Friday with No. 20 California here to face the Huskies (SNY, 7 p.m.) wasn't lost on coach Geno Auriemma.
"It's amazing the way things come around," Auriemma said on Thursday. "How many years later, 26? She's getting a banner here and we're playing Cal. What are the chances, right? That is the craziest thing."
Lobo went on to be a two-time All-American and the consensus national Player of the Year in 1995 when she led the Huskies to the first of their 11 national championship. But in 1991, she was an inexperienced freshman who had turned 18 about six weeks earlier.
She recorded a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes, but was just 3-for-13 from the floor and fouled out. Coming off its first Final Four appearance and without graduated stars Kerry Bascom and Laura Lishness, UConn struggled and the Golden Bears coasted to a 76-60 win.
"We got spanked," Auriemma said. "They were shell-shocked, those guys, in our first game without Laura and Kerry. But then we went to Hawaii and played pretty well there. I thought that first game, though, set a tone like, 'Oh, geez, this is going to be really hard, a lot harder than the players think and a lot harder than the coaches thought.' "
UConn would finish 23-11 and Lobo would be named the 1992 Big East Rookie of the Year. Three years later, the Southwick, Massachusetts, native would get even as the Huskies scored the first 25 points in a 99-52 rout of the Bears at Gampel Pavilion. Friday night's visit is California's first trip here since.
The banner will be placed next to ones honoring Auriemma, who was inducted into the Naismith Hall in his first year of eligibility in 2006. Auriemma was Lobo's presenter at her induction ceremony in September, and she finished her speech by turning to Auriemma and telling him on the Springfield Symphony Hall stage, "I wouldn't be here without you."
"Her speech was amazing," Auriemma said. "Nothing she said surprised me, the way she said it, the delivery, nothing. The end part was emotional for me. I'm just glad that the camera was on her and not me. That was totally unexpected. What she said at the end, that really set me back a bit.
"It's important to me for her banner to be up there and I want be sure that everyone sees it. I want anybody when they walk into that building to know what's possible at Connecticut."
But will Lobo's uniform No. 50 ever be retired? No UConn player has worn it since she played her final game at the Target Center in Minneapolis on April 2, 1995, but no UConn player has had her number retired.
Auriemma noted that several former Huskies who are still in the WNBA -- Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart -- figure to be candidates for the Naismith Hall after their playing careers are over, and there are only so many numbers available at the college level -- "You can't wear No. 17 here," he said.
While Lobo's ex-UConn teammate, Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott, likes the idea of retiring No. 50, she understands her former coach's point of view. The No. 50 still has its home on the Gampel Pavilion wall in the Huskies of Honor.
"There are so many great players from there, and I think there will be a more of them -- Diana, Maya, Sue, to name three -- going into the Naismith Hall of Fame," Elliott said last month. "If they start it, that's a lot of numbers that will be out of commission. When he started putting the numbers of the All-Americans on the wall you saw how quickly it added up."
Busy stretch ahead
Facing three ranked teams in a five-day span starting Friday night will be challenging enough for No. 1 UConn. Then throw in the cross-country trip the Huskies will be taking Monday.
After Friday's home opener against California, the Huskies will host 15th-ranked Maryland at the XL Center in Hartford on Sunday before getting on a commercial flight and heading to Los Angeles for Tuesday night's showdown against No. 8 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
"It's not ideal and not exactly what we wanted," Auriemma said. "We wanted it to be a little more spread out, but circumstances fell the way they did. The Oregon trip became a little more involved so we had to play UCLA probably a day earlier than we would want to play them. But it is early in the season, and we have to figure out a way to manage it."
But UConn (1-0) is not thinking ahead.
"I'm just excited about the teams we're playing," UConn All-American Gabby Williams said. "You have to take it one day at a time. Today we had a really good practice. Tomorrow we have to have a good shoot-around and then play Cal. Then we have to have another good practice. We can't think of it as we have however many games in so many days or you'll go crazy."
And it's not like the Huskies will get a break after facing UCLA.
They'll spend the Thanksgiving holiday on the west coast and take on Michigan State in Eugene, Oregon, on Nov. 25. They'll wrap up the trip when they meet Nevada in Reno on Nov. 28 in a homecoming game for Williams, a Sparks, Nevada, native. Their next home game is Dec. 3 against No. 6 Notre Dame.
"Ideally you would get out there, have a couple days to settle in, and then you would play," Auriemma said. "But we get there Monday, practice Monday afternoon and play Tuesday night. I'm sure there will be some side effects. I just don't know what they're going to be.
"I think the rest of the trip will be fine, because we will be out there for a whole week. That part is not bad. The toughest part is playing Sunday and then playing Tuesday. And it's not like Sunday's game (against Maryland) is a game that we don't have to prepare for. It's not one of those games where we just show up."
Going west is nothing new for Katie Lou Samuelson, a native of Huntington Beach, California. The UCLA game will serve as the junior All-American's homecoming.
"It's easier to go there because the time difference is better," Samuelson said. "When you come back here and have to wake up at 7 and it's 4 a.m. ... It's definitely going to be challenging because they're great teams and we're going to have to play well for three games. But we're super-excited. We never back down from a challenge."
UConn is coming off a 78-53 rout of then-No. 10 Stanford last Sunday in Columbus, Ohio. California (1-0) opened its season with an 87-80 win over St. Mary's a week ago but lost starting guard Mi'Cole Cayton for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.
Forward Kristine Anigwe -- who played on the 2014 United States U-17 national team with Samuelson and on the 2015 U-19 national team with All-American Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield and Azura Stevens -- is the Bears' top player. It's the first of two games in New England for California, which will travel to Providence to take on Brown -- Bears' coach Lindsay Gottlieb's alma mater -- on Sunday.
Friday night's game is the first of a four-game deal between UConn and California. And it's the first part of a busy and difficult stretch for the Huskies.
"I'm sure things will happen these next few days that we'll have to deal with that are challenging," Auriemma said. "I'm hoping that we face a lot of challenges."