HARTFORD, Conn. -- Kathleen Crewdson was supposed to be getting a massage.
That was how she had planned it, anyway. Then UConn announced a send-off celebration for its Final Four-bound Huskies women's basketball team at noon Tuesday, leaving Crewdson to tear up her schedule. Now she and her wife Alice O'Donovan were standing in 45-degree cold outside Gampel Pavilion waiting for Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and the rest of the UConn team to emerge from the building.
"The girls deserve the attention," said Crewdson, who received Final Four tickets for her recent 70th birthday. "Yes it's year No. 12 (of consecutive Final Four appearances), but it's still a big deal every year."
Crewdson and O'Donovan were two of several hundred fans gathered Tuesday to cheer on the Huskies as they embark for Tampa. They're also two of the tens of thousands of Connecticut residents who have grown to adore Geno Auriemma's program over its 25-run of women's hoops dominance.
Yes, the Huskies' men's basketball program has enjoyed great success, winning four national championships and capturing the state's imagination, but for some fans the women's team carries even greater resonance.
In some ways, O'Donovan said, having the 11-time champion Huskies was more meaningful than even having a major professional sports team would be.
"There's a whole lot of love that goes into this," she said.
The Courant asked fans at Tuesday's rally what UConn women's basketball means to them. Here are some of their stories.
If the UConn's women's team is playing on television, John and Joan Cromwell are almost certainly watching.
Over more than two decades as UConn basketball fans ("men and women's, but more women's," Joan said) the couple has attended the occasional game but mostly admired the Huskies devotedly from their living room.
"The girls all seem nice," Joan Crowell said. "They just seem like nice kids."
"I've never seen any of them say a negative thing about any of the other teams or the other players or their teammates," John added, before cracking a slight smile. "Well, except for Geno."
John, a former basketball coach, cites Sue Bird as his favorite ever UConn player. Joan likes current All-American Napheesa Collier.
"I just think she is amazing," she said.
The Cromwells could hardly believe their luck last fall when they found themselves just a few rows from the floor for the Huskies' game against Vanderbilt at Mohegan Sun Arena. Nearly five months later, they grinned widely as they remembered it.
"Right behind the bench," Joan said.
"That's the closest we've ever been to them," John added. "We were like five seats behind them. You could take pictures and you could do everything."
Though many states, cities and towns embrace their local college teams, there may be no place in America that celebrates women's basketball the way Connecticut does.
To Mary Ann Phaneuf and Mary Morytko, who work in UConn's pharmacy department and have cheered the Huskies for years, that makes the program's success even more meaningful.
"They're awesome," Morytko said of UConn's players. "Role models, basketball players, students, just everything."
"They bring out the crowd of everyone," Phaneuf added. "Especially young girls."
Phaneuf has watched over the years as schools across the country have devoted more attention to women's basketball, seemingly in hopes of keeping up with Connecticut. In that way, she thinks, the Huskies have spurred growth in their sport all by themselves.
"Our women have (raised) that bar for other schools," Phaneuf said.
The nation's premier women's basketball program could have popped up almost anywhere. That it happened at UConn, in a state with a deep love of sports but few local teams to root for, was almost unbelievable.
"It's just cool," Morytko said, "that they're right here."
Molly Cronin has not yet decided where she'll attend college, yet there she was Tuesday standing outside Gampel, waiting to glimpse the fabled UConn women's basketball team.
Cronin, a high school senior from Fairfield, toured UConn with her mother as she weighs whether to spend her next four years there or at the University of Vermont.
Cronin comes from a sports-loving household. Growing up, she cheered on Kemba Walker and the Huskies' men's team as well as Auriemma's women's squad. A few years ago, she and her sister attended one of UConn's NCAA Tournament games.
The Huskies' success, she said, "is definitely a point of pride," for the state.
As she considers her college choice, Cronin said she can't help but consider how much fun it might be to experience more scenes like the one she took in Tuesday at the send-off.
"I always wanted to go to a school where sports were a big part of it because I grew up loving them so much, so I think this does influence my decision," Cronin said. "It makes it a lot more fun."
While UConn played Louisville in the Elite Eight on Sunday, Ned and Susan Foran waited for the start of a memorial service for Susan's mother and other residents of her facility who had died recently. As the event approached, they watched crowd members peek at their phones, checking the Huskies' score. Soon, that proved unnecessary.
"They started off the memorial service by saying, 'We just want to let everyone know that the UConn women have won,'" Ned Foran said. "That's what it means to be a UConn women's basketball fan."
The Forans attended Tuesday's rally with their friends and fellow diehard UConn women's hoops fans Kevin and Kathy Taylor. Asked their favorite memory of the program's run, the group began spouting great moments in Huskies history.
"Sue Bird's shot at Gampel over Notre Dame in 2001," Kevin Taylor said.
"I think the Tennessee game (in 1995) when (the Volunteers) were ranked No. 1 and everybody stood for the whole game," Kathy Taylor submitted.
For years the Forans and the Taylors have marveled not only at UConn's success under Auriemma but also how the program operates "the right way." Kathy Taylor remembers the time in 2011 when the power went out for days across Connecticut and UConn players and coaches served a giant pasta dinner at the local high school in Coventry.
"They say that Connecticut is a basketball state, but I'm not necessarily sure that's true," Ned Foran said. "It's a UConn state."