MINNEAPOLIS — Connecticut has spent nearly three decades as women’s college basketball’s most formidable threat, dangerous even when it hasn’t been ranked No. 1 in Division I for weeks at a time — that’s where that the Huskies spent a significant portion of that time.
But after losing to South Carolina on Sunday night, the Huskies no longer have a perfect record in NCAA championship games. For the first time since 2008, some UConn players will graduate without winning a national title. And the program, so often considered a dynasty, is in the midst of its longest championship drought since winning the first of its 11 championships in 1995. Although it has been part of the Final Four in recent years, his last championship was in 2016.
“It’s UConn, so it’s National Championship or nothing,” sophomore goaltender Paige Bueckers said after the game, looking at reporters with red-rimmed eyes. “I’m obviously upset, frustrated and disappointed.”
His coach, Geno Auriemma, was uncharacteristically subdued in his post-game interviews with reporters. Instead of attributing the loss to the “immaturity” of his players, as he did after last year’s national semifinal loss to Arizona, the second-winningest coach in the Division I women’s basketball history insisted he was proud of his team for coming this far.
Auriemma reviewed the long list of hurdles the Huskies had overcome during the season – most related to maintaining health – and added that forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa had played with an injury suffered during the Friday’s game against Stanford, and that freshman guard Azzi Fudd fell ill overnight and did not go to the shootout.
The team has certainly faced a lot of adversity. Most notable among his various setbacks was Bueckers’ midseason knee injury, which contributed to the Huskies’ worst regular season in 17 years.
Even that injury, however, still ignores the questions that hang over every Auriemma move at this point in his career: Are the legendary UConn Huskies dynasty losing their power? This defeat, more than all the previous defeats of the Final Four, is it the one that marks the end of an era?
“It’s another reminder of how hard it is to win here,” Auriemma said. “Usually the best team wins when you get here, and we just weren’t good enough.”
Hearing Auriemma say it’s hard to win might sound almost unbelievable, considering how easily he’s made it sound over the past three decades. Connecticut has long had the best team in its games – it has spent entire seasons blowing teams by 30 or 40 points and nearly reached its 11 championships.
UConn’s dominance may have begun to recede, but the untitled stretch also testifies to the growth of programs designed to challenge its position at the top of the heap. South Carolina, for example, is now a two-time champion whose claim to powerhouse status is bolstered by the fact that, unlike 2017, the Gamecocks had to go through the Huskies to win this championship.
“A lot of what we can do and achieve is because of their success,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said before the championship game. “I think the folks at UConn treat their women’s basketball team like a sport. They have to because of all the winnings and all the success, but you could take a page out of their book.
Whether that loss was due to the Huskies not being what they used to be, developing even tougher competition, or just a series of bad breaks – maybe all three reasons are valid – Auriemma is optimistic. that his young team will have a lot to offer next season.
“I like our chances,” said Auriemma, who will return her two A-list recruits to Fudd and Bueckers and add Ayanna Patterson and Isuneh Brady, both ranked in the top five of the Class of 2022 by ESPN.
“Provided we don’t have to navigate a season like we did this year, and – knock on wood – if we stay healthy,” Auriemma said, “I expect to be back here next year.”