UConn women's notes: UConn's Auriemma, USC's Gottlieb recall their first Final Fours

Apr. 1—PORTLAND, Ore. — It wasn't the first time Southern California coach Lindsay Gottlieb met Geno Auriemma — he recruited her best friend back in the day, Hilary Howard — but Gottlieb found herself in Auriemma's company at the 2013 Final Four in New Orleans.

Gottlieb was coaching Cal, which would fall to Louisville in the national semifinals, while Auriemma coached UConn to a national championship, one of his unprecedented 11.

"They did some kind of salute dinner," Gottlieb recalled this week from the Moda Center in Portland. "You get sized for rings. I was right next to him.

"He made some comment along the lines of, 'Lindsay can really enjoy this. When she's at her 10th (which is really nice of him), it will feel like a relief like it feels for me.' That was an interesting kind of comment, of course. Shows how hard it is to get back."

On Monday, Gottlieb's USC Trojans, the top seed in the NCAA tournament's Portland Regional 3, met Auriemma's UConn Huskies, the No. 3 seed, with each coach vying to get back to the Final Four. The national semifinals will be contested Friday in Cleveland with the championship game scheduled for Sunday.

Auriemma distinctly remembers his first Final Four in 1991, also in New Orleans. Who encouraged him back then?

"Nobody," Auriemma said. "There was nobody telling me that we were going to go to 10 Final Fours. After my first one, the only question was, 'How'd you guys get here?'

"Because we didn't belong there. We didn't look like a Final Four team. We didn't come from a Final Four conference. We didn't come from a Final Four part of the world ... we were really an outlier."

Auriemma laughed before explaining that he eventually got something far better than encouragement.

"After (championships in) 2000, 2001, '02, '03, I got a lot of, 'We're sick of you being here,'" he said. "So I think that was better."

A Crimson tide

USC's McKenzie Forbes and her brother Mason, from Folsom, California, both attended Harvard but used their fifth year of eligibility — granted by the NCAA to all collegiate athletes during the pandemic — elsewhere. The Ivy League does not allow graduate students to participate in athletics.

Mason, a 6-foot-9 forward, played this season for Saint Mary's (California), winning the West Coast Conference men's tournament title to earn an NCAA tournament berth just days after McKenzie and the USC women won the Pac-12 tournament.

Saint Mary's fell to Grand Canyon in the first round of the Spokane Regional, while McKenzie was set to tip off Monday night against UConn in the Elite Eight.

"It's kind of like the culmination of our basketball careers," McKenzie Forbes said this week. "It's been pretty cool to, like, see it on a really successful note. Obviously this is the stuff we talked about as kids, Mason and I."

McKenzie said that Mason spent some time in Los Angeles after his team was eliminated, even taking in a few USC workouts.

"Just that support system in our family, obviously you can probably tell means a lot to us," McKenzie said. "... Yeah, they'll all be here. I had to bum some tickets off some teammates."

Coaching tree

USC's coaching staff includes former UConn player Willnett Crockett, who played for the Huskies on their national championship teams in 2003-04. A Los Angeles native and Gatorade California Girls' Basketball Player of the Year, Crockett is in her first season with the Trojans, serving as recruiting coordinator.

"Coach Will is a winner," Gottlieb said when Crockett was hired. "... She has literally walked in the shoes that our players aspire to and she will be a terrific mentor and leader for them."

Also on USC staff is Chris Koclanes, a former video coordinator, then assistant coach for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun under then-head coach Curt Miller. Koclanes followed Miller to the Los Angeles Sparks before being hired by USC.