STORRS, Conn. (AP) — A little town of about 12,000 people located in the rolling farmland and stone fences of eastern Connecticut seems like a strange place for the center of the major college sports universe.
But Storrs is the home of the University of Connecticut, which can lay claim to that title after becoming the first school to send a football team to a BCS bowl game and both its basketball programs to the Final Four in the same academic year.
“It’s a great time to be a UConn fan,” Jeff Hathaway, the school’s athletic director, said after the women’s basketball team capped the unique trifecta on Tuesday with a 75-40 win against Duke. “I think it’s just an incredible statement about our university and our athletic program.”
The football team went 8-5, losing on New Year’s Day in the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma, 48-20. The men’s basketball team (30-9) has gone 9-0 in the postseason and will play Kentucky (29-8) on Saturday for a spot in the national title game.
It’s the third time in the past seven years that both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have advanced to the Final Four in the same season. In 2004 they won dual titles, a first for a Division I school. Central Missouri State claimed Division II titles in 1984.
All-American Kemba Walker, who has led the men’s team with an average of more than 26 points per game in the postseason, said many of the basketball players from both teams have a close relationship and take pride in the others’ accomplishments.
“We definitely love watching those ladies play,” he said. “They’re the best team in the country in my opinion. They work extremely hard every day. There was a point where they didn’t lose, until they lost to Stanford, but you would have thought they lost 80 games in a row the way they practice every day.”
The women’s players said they were almost as excited to watch the men win as they were after their own victory. Maya Moore said they went screaming up and down the hallways of their Philadelphia hotel after Walker and his teammates team beat Arizona in the West Region final.
“They’ve obviously kind of shocked everybody with where they’ve come from,” forward Kelly Faris said. “I know it went through all our minds that they made it, they were able to get there, overcome everything, so it’s our time.”
Before Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma arrived on campus in the mid-1980s, neither program had won a national title, and the football program was still Division I-AA.
The men’s basketball team won two titles, taking their first in 1999. The women are going for their eighth national championship.
“I remember watching those buses in 1999 driving down Interstate 84, with people hanging over the overpasses, and thinking to myself, this is happening in Storrs, Connecticut,” said Howie Dickenman, who was an assistant coach at UConn for from 1982 to 1996, and now coaches at Central Connecticut. “I mean this wasn’t UCLA, this was Storrs, Connecticut. Where Jim Calhoun has brought this place, people just don’t understand.”
The state opened the 10,00-seat Gampel Pavilion in 1990; the 40,000-seat Rentschler Field football stadium in East Hartford in 2003; and a $50 million football practice complex on campus in 2006.
The school is currently in the process of raising money for a new $35 million basketball practice facility, which would include two gymnasiums for the men’s and women’s teams. It will also feature offices, classrooms, strength training, sports medicine and video areas.
“We don’t ever take this for granted,” Hathaway said. “This never gets old.”
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)