The University of Connecticut women's basketball team will try to make history for its coach Geno Auriemma on Tuesday night, but Sherri Coale has been there and done that.
Auriemma will go for his 1,000th career win when the top-ranked Huskies (8-0) face Coale and Oklahoma in the Naismith Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena. He would be the third or fourth women's coach -- depending on the result of Tuesday afternoon's North Carolina-Grambling game as the Tar Heels' Sylvia Hatchell seeks the four-figure plateau -- in the 1,000-win club.
But Coale already knows how to throw a wrench in an opponent's plans. On Feb. 2, 2009, the Sooners defeated Tennessee 80-70 in Oklahoma City to deny late Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt of her 1,000th win in her first attempt. Summitt would reach the milestone three days later against Georgia.
"I never looked at Connecticut's schedule and I was unaware of it until people started talking about it a couple of weeks ago," Coale said Monday. "It's crazy how that works out, isn't it?"
Coale and Auriemma have a long relationship that dates back to 1995 when he successfully recruited Stacy Hansmeyer to UConn when Coale was her coach at Norman High. Six months later, Coale was hired by Oklahoma and has often credited Auriemma with helping her land the position.
In her 22nd season with the Sooners, she has 470 wins, six Big 12 regular season titles, four Big 12 tournament crowns and 18 consecutive NCAA tournament bids. She was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
"There's no doubt that Geno has played a big role in my coaching career and I could not express my appreciation more," Coale said. "I'm fortunate that he is a friend and someone that I can talk to and he has been a great help to me through the years in helping me grow and be a better basketball coach.
"The thing he does better than anyone with people is push the right buttons. He's created an environment that gets people to raise their level to excellence."
Oklahoma (5-5) has posted impressive back-to-back wins over South Florida and New Mexico following a four-game losing streak, which Coale credits to taking care of little things. Five Sooners average in double figures, led by seniors Vionise Pierre-Louis and Gabbi Ortiz. Coale has been excited her freshman class of Ana Lianusa, Shaina Pellington and Mandy Simpson.
"I am so proud of them," Coale said. "There's a big learning curve with all of the things they need to do to try and figure everything out at this level. They're getting better all the time. All these guys, with their confidence intact, are doing things to help us. That's why we have the strength of schedule we have. It's to help them grow and gain confidence. There have been tough times, but later on they're going to be grateful for what they've gone through."
Tuesday night's game is the first of a four-year deal between the schools with the Huskies scheduled to travel to Oklahoma next season. UConn leads the series 10-0, but this is the first meeting since Feb. 13, 2012, a 73-55 win at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman.
About 300 tickets remained as of Monday morning, and with Auriemma's milestone in mind, the atmosphere promises to be electric.
"We're going to take the same approach we had when we went to Brookings, South Dakota, or played SMU at the Lloyd Noble Center," Coale said. "We're looking at this as an opportunity to grow. We can learn so much about ourselves as individuals and as a team. I want our players to think, 'What can I get out of this?' That's why we schedule Connecticut and games like this."
"I want my players to relish this opportunity and the opportunity to compete. We schedule Connecticut to find out where we are and how well we can compete in this environment."
And for two hours Tuesday night, Coale will put her friendship with Auriemma to the side with the hope of repeating some Sooners history.
"Geno is one of the greatest coaches in any sport at any level in any time," Coale said. "What he has done has been incredible. If I were a fan, I would want to be a part of what could happen Tuesday night. But I'm not a fan."
Flu bug bites Walker
The Huskies will be short-handed again Tuesday night as freshman wing Megan Walker will sit out due to the flu.
"She hasn't practiced in three or four days," Auriemma said. "She's just been sick. She has no strength and she's lost a little weight. She hasn't been eating. So she's day-to-day. According to her and our athletic trainer, we're going to try and do something Wednesday and maybe she'll be ready for Friday."
Walker is averaging 5.4 points and four rebounds in 17.5 minutes off the bench for the Huskies. The Chesterfield, Virginia, native had a season-high 13 points in the win at UCLA on Nov. 21 and played a key role in UConn's fourth-quarter comeback win against Notre Dame on Dec. 3.
After taking on Oklahoma, the Huskies travel to Toronto, Canada, to meet Duquesne on Friday (SNY, 7 p.m.) in a homecoming game for senior guard Kia Nurse.
Injuries halt reuinion
When UConn and Oklahoma announced almost two years ago the four-game deal that starts Tuesday night, it seemed there would be a reunion between Missouri natives and Incarnate Word Academy of St. Louis teammates Napheesa Collier of the Huskies and the Sooners' McKenna Treece. The duo combined to lead IWA to a pair of Class 4A state championships in their two years together.
But while Collier has gone to become an All-American at UConn, a chronic hip injury forced Treece to give up the game last season after her junior year. The 6-foot-4 forward/center played in 78 games over three seasons for Oklahoma and finished with 180 points and 132 rebounds. Treece is still listed on the roster, but has spent time working as an analyst for the Sooners Radio Network during games. She will not be at Mohegan Sun Arena on Tuesday.
"I've been able to catch up with her a little bit," Collier said. "I'll see her when I'm back home during the summer and I was able to see her last month when we were out at the Nike event (PK80 Invitational) in Oregon. She told me last year that she wouldn't be playing anymore and it sucks to see that happen to a teammate. She loves the game so much. It would have been great to have played against her."
One former teammate Collier will face is Ortiz, Oklahoma's senior guard. Collier, along with UConn's Crystal Dangerfield and Azura Stevens, joined Ortiz on the 2015 United States national team that won the gold medal at the FIBA U-19 world championships. Ortiz is averaging 15.4 points and five rebounds in 36.9 minutes for the Sooners.
"The same things Gabbi did for the U-19 team are the same things we're going to try and guard against tomorrow," Collier said. "She's a great 3-point shooter and sees the floor well. When she has the ball, she can attack well."
Still the 1
UConn, which did not play last week due to fall semester final exams, remained the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in Monday's Associated Press poll.
There were no newcomers to the Top 25. The top eight --- UConn, Notre Dame, Louisville, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Baylor, Tennessee and Texas -- remained the same, with No. 9 West Virginia and 10th-ranked Oregon switching spots.
South Florida stayed at No. 22 and was the only other American Athletic Conference team to receive votes. The Bulls' Kitija Laksa was named AAC Player of the Week on Monday after going 11-for-12 from 3-point land, missing her first try, in scoring 40 points in a rout of Southern University. Cincinnati forward Iimar'i Thomas was chosen as AAC Freshman of the Week.