Published April 10. 2013 6:00PM Updated April 11. 2013 7:09PM
Storrs — The job of carrying the national championship trophy off the plane Wednesday afternoon was to belong to one of the upperclassmen on the UConn women's basketball team.
Caroline Doty, a fifth-year senior, was asleep. Stefanie Dolson, a junior, was asleep.
So the other two seniors, Kelly Faris and Heather Buck, Buck also in her fifth year, talked it over. Faris already had a shot at possession of the trophy the night before in New Orleans.
So it was Buck, of Stonington, the former Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year, who carried it down the stairs at Bradley International Airport, all smiles.
UConn stormed past Louisville to win its eighth national title, tied for most of any team in history, on Tuesday. The Huskies, after losing three times during the regular season, as well as the Big East Conference tournament championship game, never looked back in beating Louisville 93-60 for the title.
"It did feel really special," Buck said of being the official torch bearer. "We are trying to win a championship every year. Being a Connecticut girl and being able to bring a championship back to Connecticut … in a concrete way, I was bringing the trophy back to Connecticut."
It was a day to celebrate Wednesday, as the Huskies returned to the UConn campus for a "victory lap" on an open-air double-decker bus.
They were clad in new warmups provided for them by Nike, which had one word on the back: "Gr8tness," and they returned to a crowd of nearly 2,000 fans who greeted them on campus. The bus dropped them off at Fairfield Way Plaza, next to the Student Union, for a short rally.
There were blank signs distributed on which fans could write their own messages. One said, "Stewart, will you marry me? Call me maybe," referring to freshman Breanna Stewart, who was Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. One said, "#BleedBlue," a reference to a common Huskies hashtag on Twitter.
There was one older gentleman wearing a Stewart shirt and a dad with a bicycle built for two, towing a wagon behind him. UConn football coach Paul Pasqualoni also came to the rally.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma told the crowd it's easy to forget sometimes that the Huskies are not just playing for themselves.
"When you do something like we did last night, sometimes you don't realize because you're playing in it and it's basketball — you're kind of in a bubble — but you don't realize we didn't just win, what we did was give a whole bunch of people a reason to have a party," Auriemma said.
"That sign says, 'Come drink wine with me.' Bring it on."
Auriemma said later that the players were truly happy to see the large turnout of their fellow students, approximately 2,000 of whom watched the championship game the night before at UConn's Gampel Pavilion.
"Our student season tickets have gone up and up and up every year," Auriemma said. "This year it's the highest it's ever been. They want to be a part of it.
"I feel the same way with our team. Kelly's done it and Caroline's done it and Heather's done it, but we had eight players that are just like those students were. This is what they hope and dream of. It never ceases to amaze me."
UConn loses Faris, Buck and Doty to graduation, but returns Stewart, as well as three previous All-Americans in Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Bria Hartley to next year's team. Dolson, UConn's center, will be a senior next season, when the Huskies would seemingly again be the favorites to win it all, as will Hartley. Mosqueda-Lewis, who led the nation in 3-point shooting, will be a junior.
Faris, on behalf of the team, addressed the crowd at the rally.
"First of all, I didn't expect to have a crowd like this," said Faris, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in her final career game and will likely be selected in the first round of next week's WNBA Draft. "I think this is going to be a new tradition now.
"… I wouldn't trade it for anything. I wouldn't want to be a part of it with another group."
And so Buck, who along with Doty are two of only four players in women's basketball history to have been to five Final Fours, stood in front of Gampel Pavilion late in the day Wednesday, still smiling, posing for photographs with passers-by.
"It's a unique experience to go to a school where women's basketball is so valued," Buck said, echoing Auriemma's sentiments. "We're so immersed in what we're doing, what we need to do, we sometimes forget so many people out there care and are so affected by all of it."