By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ The Connecticut women’s basketball team returned to campus Wednesday, wearing warm-up jackets with “Gr8ness” printed on the back and carrying with them the program’s eighth NCAA championship trophy.
Dozens of fans greeted the Huskies at Bradley International Airport and more than 2,000 others gathered on a plaza across from Gampel Pavilion, the school’s basketball arena, for a ceremony to welcome the team home.
“This is the reason why I came here,” said Ellen Machalick, 20, a sophomore from Norwich, who grew up watching the Huskies win titles. “Just to be part of a school that is so proud to wear their sweatshirts and wear the Husky on their hats. It’s a great thing to be a part of.”
The team, which beat Louisville 93-60 on Tuesday night, boarded double-decker buses for a “victory lap” around campus, before heading to the ceremony.
This is the school’s 11th basketball championship since 1995 and the eighth for the women, tying a record set by the University of Tennessee. But this was the first time the university held a parade on campus.
In the past, the team held a victory ceremony inside the arena, with a parade at a later date through the streets of Hartford. The school decided to change things up this year in an attempt to get the campus more involved.
Few people lined the parade route, but cars stopped and honked their horns as the double-decker bus passed by. The real celebration began when the bus arrived at the plaza, where the pep band played the school fight song and the crowd cheered and held up signs, including several marriage proposals for players.
“I did not expect to have a crowd like this, unbelievable” said senior Kelly Faris.
The campus bookstore, the UConn Co-op, sold more than 600 championship shirts on Wednesday, said Bob Hawley, the stores merchandise manager. A bigger shipment was set to arrive on Thursday.
But the crowd actually was smaller than during the early days of the UConn dynasty, when thousands of fans would fill the arena for the victory celebration.
“The sad part is this is new for this team,” said Bill Salvatore, 64, of Vernon. “The problem is, people think of this like a professional team, where you get the same players year after year. It doesn’t matter how many times they win the championship, this is the first year for this team, and people should be here supporting them.”
They may get another chance. Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said discussions were underway on holding another event at the state Capitol.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said winning a title never gets routine for him nor does seeing the joy on the faces of the players, especially the underclassmen who were not a part of the program’s last title in 2010.
“We’ve got eight players on our team and they were just like those students were last night,” he said. “This is what they hope and dream of when they go to college.
“And for me being in that locker room and seeing their reaction, it never ceases to amaze me how much kids enjoy this kind of stuff,” he said. “And it makes coaching fun.”
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