Almost five months after Connecticut’s season started with a win over Stanford in Nationwide Arena, here the Huskies sit again.
Just like then, they’re unbeaten (36-0), No. 1 in the country and favored to win a 12th NCAA women’s basketball national championship.
Whether that’s coming full circle or running a prescribed straight line is up to the analogist. What coach Geno Auriemma knows about his record 11th straight Final Four team that he didn’t know on Nov. 12 is that it is better now than it was then.
UConn’s unbeaten run survived its most serious threat on the road at Texas on Jan. 15 when the Huskies rallied from a double-digit deficit. But Auriemma pointed to a win at home Dec. 3 over Notre Dame — ironically, the Huskies’ semifinal opponent — when they faced a depth-plumbing challenge and saw backups rise to the challenge.
Team leaders Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson had to spend extended time on the bench in the late going while Megan Walker and Azura Stevens picked up the slack in the 80-71 victory.
“We had some guys step up and make some huge plays to beat a really, really good team — a great team, actually,” Auriemma said this week. “I wonder if we had been on the road, would we have lost that game? I don’t know.
“But we were at home, and we needed some players to make some huge plays that don’t necessarily make those plays. That made me think, ‘OK, we have some other things going for us other than just the players that everybody says are the best players.’ ”
Forward Crystal Dangerfield made two free throws in the final eight seconds to ice the 75-71 win at Texas, just like she delivered the uppercut baskets on Monday that helped knock out defending national champion South Carolina in the Albany Regional.
That win put the Huskies in position to right what went wrong a year ago when they were upset in the national semifinals by Mississippi State, snapping a 111-game winning streak.
Some have called what UConn has done this season a redemption tour. But just like her coach, Dangerfield said she and her teammates, galvanized by that loss, have treated it as more of a step-by-step climb.
“I think we didn’t want to look too far ahead because we knew that if we were just focused on getting back to the Final Four from the beginning of the season, something else could catch us off-guard,” Dangerfield said on Monday. “We just took it one game at a time.”
Since that win at Texas, the Huskies have been on a tear. The closest anyone has gotten to them was Final Four member Louisville, which fell 69-58 at Connecticut on Feb. 12. And there’s no secret to how UConn is getting it done, Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
“They score. That’s what I tell everybody all the time: In order to beat UConn, you have to score the basketball,” he said. “You go on a two-minute, three-minute drought, and they’ve scored eight to 10 points.
“Because they’re able to score it as well as they do, that puts pressure on your offense, just as much as their defense puts pressure on you. At times you’ve got to figure out a way to slow them down so you don’t have as much pressure on yourself to score every possession.”
Then throw in that chip on their shoulder that the Huskies have been playing with all season.
“Redemption — I don’t know if it’s the word,” Dangerfield said. “But I think we definitely have something to prove, I think not only to the rest of the world, but to ourselves, as well.”