It’s no secret that women’s college basketball has been Connecticut’s personal playground for a generation. Since 1995, the Huskies under coach Geno Auriemma have captured 11 national titles, played in six other Final Fours and won 799 of 856 games, a 93.3 winning percentage.
In the face of such dominance, recent Connecticut losses have been treated as something on par with unicorn sightings — both rare and magnificent.
So it was on March 31 in Dallas, when Morgan William made a jumper as time expired to give Mississippi State a 66-64 overtime win over UConn in a national semifinal. The loss snapped the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak and opened the door for a new women’s national champion for the first time since 2012; South Carolina beat Mississippi State to claim the title.
Neither Auriemma nor his team sulked or griped or openly expressed regret about what might have been; when you’ve won 11 national titles, you can afford to stay on the high road.
“I think it was refreshing,” Auriemma said in October. “Best thing that happened to some of these kids, best thing that happened to our program and our fans.”
If nothing else, losing erased every hint of pressure on the Huskies. Had they won a fifth straight title, they would be taking a 113-game winning streak into the season. Instead, they offered congratulations and then got down to business of ensuring that there is no repeat this year. The king is dead; long live the king.
“We’ve got some business to attend to this year,” Auriemma said. “This could be one hell of a team.”
The 2018 Women’s Final Four will be held in Nationwide Arena, and the preseason assumption is that it would take some sort of minor miracle to prevent the Huskies from storming Columbus.
Connecticut will be tested by a typically robust schedule: It will play 15 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, including five teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP preseason poll, starting on Sunday against Stanford in Nationwide Arena.
But this year’s team has experience and depth, two things that were missing from the group that won its first 36 games a year ago. The Huskies return their top four scorers.
“We came in with almost nothing last year, and we got pretty far,” senior Gabby Williams said. “Now we’re coming in with the same people, but add some maturity to that.”
The Huskies also added an influx of talent. The newcomers include Azura Stevens, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Duke, Kentucky transfer Batouly Camara, and Megan Walker, a 6-1 freshman forward from Richmond, Virginia, who was the nation’s top recruit.
So highly regarded is UConn that the five-player preseason All-America team released this week included three Huskies. Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Williams were joined by South Carolina’s Aja Wilson and Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell.
Wilson probably will be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, her Gamecocks are the defending champions, and Mitchell has a chance to become the career scoring leader in women’s basketball. Yet it’s all about UConn.
“We’re using (last year) as motivation,” Collier said. “We’re using it to make us stronger, faster and smarter than we were last year so we don’t repeat what happened.”