Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi
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Geno Auriemma wouldn’t have returned without Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi

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STORRS, Conn. — Geno Auriemma doesn’t think he would have returned to coach the U.S. women’s basketball team at a second straight Olympics unless Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi came back, too.

“I wouldn’t be good enough as a coach to guide the team through a gold medal [at Rio 2016],” Auriemma said at the end of a three-day national team camp at the University of Connecticut on Tuesday. “I need them to help me. That’s how good they are, and that’s how smart they are. And that’s how used to winning they are. So, I wouldn’t trust myself to be able to do it without them.”

Auriemma, 61, is in his 31st season coaching UConn, a run that’s included 10 NCAA titles, four of them with Bird and/or Taurasi on the roster from 2000-04.

In 2012, Auriemma led the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Olympics for the first time.

The Americans went undefeated, running their Olympic winning streak to 41 games. Auriemma called the experience more special because the 12-woman roster included six of his former UConn players, and the dynamic perimeter duo of Bird and Taurasi in particular.

“I think [Taurasi] knows, and particularly her and Sue, I think they know one of my reasons for wanting to do it in the first place was, obviously, being an Olympic coach means a lot, but the opportunity to coach the two of them again was pretty powerful,” Auriemma said.

Auriemma thought that would be his only Olympic head-coaching experience.

“It’s not my turn anymore,” Auriemma said in 2013. “It’s someone else’s turn. I did what I was asked to do and what I wanted to do.

“First of all, I was never asked [to return], so I didn’t want to presume anything. Second of all, I really did think USA Basketball, on the women’s side, has never done that [retain an Olympic coach for the following Games]. So why should I presume I would be the first?”

That all changed on July 31, 2013. USA Basketball finally asked Auriemma.

And on a cleverly planned day — when the coach felt particularly patriotic at the White House, feted with his national champion UConn team by President Obama.

“I was reminded that the opportunity to represent your country is one you don’t take lightly,” Auriemma said in a press release announcing his return to coach the team about one month later. “This is not an opportunity that comes along too often. I was humbled by the request, and I’m honored to do it again.”

Auriemma said the choice did not come easy. It was the longest he had ever taken to make a decision. Unspecified NBA and U.S. leaders nudged him to come back.

On Tuesday, the three-time Olympic champions Bird and Taurasi said they had deep conversations with Auriemma to persuade him as well.

“I think he was really thinking about it and kind of seesawing,” Bird said. “There was definitely a phone conversation that happened. That was probably, in that conversation, the most honest I’ve ever been with him.”

Taurasi said she communicates with Auriemma three times per week, even when she’s playing professionally in Russia.

“Coach, he knows how to use an iPhone now, that’s made communicating a little bit easier,” joked Taurasi, adding that she sat down with, called and texted Auriemma to convince him to go for 2016. “After London, I feel like there was still a little unfinished business for him.”

How can a coach of an undefeated Olympic champion team possibly have unfinished business?

“It wouldn’t be as far as results or scoring more points,” Taurasi said. “I think he just saw an opportunity with, maybe a new breed of players, that he can instill something that can go a long way. I think he’s doing that.”

The comment immediately brought to mind current UConn senior Breanna Stewart, the youngest player among 25 Olympic team finalists who is attempting to duplicate Taurasi’s feat from 2004 — win an NCAA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.

Back to Bird, the U.S.’ starting point guard for the last decade. She seemed hesitant to commit to 2016 in the emotional moments after taking gold in London.

But Bird and Taurasi’s message to Auriemma in 2013 couldn’t have been clearer.

“It was, well, we’re going to do it one more time,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to try to give it a shot one more time. I was like, yeah, but I’ve already done it. Then they talked about, let’s do it again. Let’s see where it takes us. Between that and [U.S. women’s national team director] Carol Callan and [USA Basketball CEO] Jim Tooley and USA Basketball, it kind of put the screws on me.

“You had two answers. Yes, and, yes, when can I start? You weren’t going to say no to them.”

MORE: Auriemma: UConn wouldn’t ‘make it at the Olympics’

NBC Olympic researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report.

10 takeaways from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu of course come to mind, though there were plenty of other moments to remark upon along the way. 

Women

1. Alysa Liu proved that she could do it again. She validated her insistence that there was no more pressure in successfully defending a title compared to winning her first title. 

Plus, the amusement of seeing the 4-foot-10 14-year-old needing help ascending the top step of the awards podium doesn’t get old either. Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell helped hoist her for the second year in a row. Liu next competes at world juniors, where she will take on a formidable pair of Russian “K’s”: Kamila Valieva and Ksenia Sinitsyna, both of whom outscored her on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. To win the crown, Liu may need a fully rotated quadruple Lutz, something that eluded her in Greensboro.

2. Speaking of Bell, she comes out of the championships with her already-improving confidence another notch higher after the free skate of her life and her best nationals finish ever, a silver medal. In tears before she even hit her final pose, she deservedly got an overwhelming standing ovation.

When asked how she felt about being the No. 1 senior U.S. woman, she said, “It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career, so that was awesome. The coolest thing about it was how into it the crowd was.” 

Now, let the calculations begin: can Bell and Tennell gain three U.S. women’s spots for next season’s world championships? To do so, the sum of their placements at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships cannot be greater than 13 (for example, sixth and seventh).

3. Rounding out the memorable moments of the women’s event were the returns of Olympians Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, the 2017 national champion, missed the entirety of last season with a right foot stress fracture, and now is a freshman at Cornell. She finished fourth, and gained an assignment at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships early next month. With her competitive juices flowing again, Chen told reporters she was considering taking a gap year from college.

Two-time U.S. champion Gold, of course, triumphed simply by qualifying for her first national championships since 2017 after time away from the sport for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. After a mediocre short program, Gold did a respectable free skate, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation, an emotional reward that left her with grateful tears. It moved Gold, who finished 12th, to vow she would continue her comeback for at least another season.

Men

4. Nathan Chen’s fourth straight U.S. title puts him in the company of five men since World War II, all of whom won Olympic gold medals, with Brian Boitano (85-88) the most recent. Chen, a Yale sophomore, was the first to do it in the IJS and quadruple jump eras (he went six-for-six in quads in the two programs), and the fourth came after a case of the flu bad enough he could practice only intermittently the first two weeks of January. “I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” coach Rafael Arutunian said of Chen.

5. Tomoki Hiwatashi’s continued improvement: two clean programs with three clean quads for the bronze medal. His showmanship, including Russian split jumps, are to die for. Last season, Hiwatashi finished a surprise fourth at nationals but had disappointing 10th and fifth places in his debut competitions on the senior Grand Prix debut. The 2019 world junior champion has put himself into the mix for a 2022 Olympic team spot — if he can improve his consistency. 

6. Except for that pesky quad, Jason Brown put it all together at nationals for the first time since 2014. If he can execute all the elements as brilliantly as he did in Greensboro, a clean quad might put him in bronze medal contention at the 2020 World Championships, given the consistent inconsistency of all the top men after Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

7. In the past month, Vincent Zhou turned his life inside out, taking a leave from Brown University to focus on skating after completing the first semester of his freshman year and switching coaches to Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Toronto. Despite that upheaval and little intense training, the reigning world bronze medalist and 2019 U.S. silver medalist had two solid performances to finish fourth, strategically limiting his quads to one in each program. Although Zhou had skipped the Grand Prix season, his choice as a world team member over Hiwatashi was totally justified under the selection criteria in use.

Ice dance

8. Madison Chock and Evan Bates made ice dance — and figure skating — history when they became the first U.S. skater, couple or pair team to go five years between national titles since the 1920s. They topped two duos they train with, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, to win their first title since 2015, also won in Greensboro. Their widely acclaimed slithering “Snake Charmer” free dance likely sets them up to glide to the world championship podium, but another showdown with Hubbell and Donohue awaits at Four Continents.

Pairs

9. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had a breakthrough moment in the pairs’ event with one of the most memorable free skates in the last 20 years. Calalang’s joyous disbelief was palpable when she and Johnson got their score (146.01, the highest ever at nationals) for a program that had the crowd out of its seats before it even ended

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, we did both jumps… maybe 130,” she said, recalling her mental play-by-play. “Then it’s 140. Ohmigod, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

Added Johnson: “No one can take that moment away from us.” 

Especially poignant words as Calalang and Johnson were passed over in favor of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc for the world championships teams. Calalang and Johnson are slated to participate at Four Continents, where they can continue to build a body of work that will impress U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee next time around.

10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. pair title in Greensboro, joining such company as John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard. The couple skated a clean and memorable short program to “At Last,” including side-by-side triple toe loops. In the free skate, though, Knierim fell on his triple toe and the skaters doubled their planned triple Salchows. Despite their superior triple twist and lifts, in order to crack the top five in the world, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim need to get consistent on their jumps, and the California-based skaters are working with Arutunian to do so.

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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Full Results | Women’s | Ice dance | Pairs | Men’s | Worlds roster

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

China’s first Winter X Games postponed due to coronavirus

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A Winter X Games competition due to be held in Chongli, China, next month has been postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.

“Due to the ongoing coronavirus concerns, the X Games Chongli 2020 event will be postponed until a later date,” organizers announced via Twitter. “The safety of our athletes, staff and spectators is our top priority, and we will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

The competition would have been the first Winter X Games held in China. Shanghai has hosted many X Games in the summer, including a event last June.

As with an Alpine skiing World Cup event that was canceled Wednesday, the X Games were due to take place at a 2022 Olympic venue, Chongli’s Secret Garden ski report. The venue hosted a World Cup snowboard event in December.

READ: First Alpine World Cup in China canceled

Several of the most decorated X Games and Olympic athletes, including two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion Jamie Anderson, were scheduled to compete in China.

The coronavirus outbreak has also affected qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, with boxing and women’s soccer tournaments moved from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Asia-Oceania boxing qualifiers will be held March 3-11 in Amman, Jordan, with coverage on the Olympic Channel. The women’s soccer qualifiers, including traditional power China and a strong Australian team, were originally moved to Nanjing but then moved to Sydney, Australia.

China’s team has arrived in Australia but is under quarantine, putting the start of the qualifiers in doubt.

Aspen hosted the biggest X Games competition of the winter last week. Another X Games is scheduled for March 7-8 in Norway.

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