MINNEAPOLIS – Connecticut has spent nearly three decades as the most formidable threat in women’s college basketball, dangerous even when it’s not at No. 1 in Division I for weeks, and this is where 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. In a rarity in the Geno Auriemma era, some UConn players will graduate without winning a national title. And the program, often considered a dynasty, is facing its longest championship drought since winning the first of its 11 championships in 1995. Although it has been a fixture in the Final Four for the past few years, its last championship was in the 2016.
“This is UConn, so it’s a national championship or nothing,” second-year star Paige Bueckers said after the game, looking at the reporters with red-rimmed eyes. “I’m obviously shocked, frustrated and disappointed.”
His coach, Auriemma, was unusually subdued as he spoke to reporters after the game. Instead of attributing the defeat to the “immaturity” of his players, as he did after the national semi-final they lost to Arizona last year, the second most successful manager in the history of Division I women’s basketball insisted he was proud. of her team for coming this far.
Auriemma looked at the long list of obstacles the Huskies had overcome during the season – most of which were health related – and added that striker Olivia Nelson-Ododa had played with an injury sustained in Friday’s game against Stanford. and that freshman Azzi Fudd got sick during the night and didn’t go to the shooting.
The team has certainly faced a lot of adversity. Most notable among his various setbacks was Bueckers ‘mid-season knee injury, which contributed to the Huskies’ worst regular season in 17 years.
Even that injury, however, still fails to account for the questions that loom over every move Auriemma makes at this point in his legendary career: Is the legendary UConn Huskies dynasty losing its power? Is this defeat, more than any previous defeat in the Final Four, the one that marks the end of an era?
“It’s another reminder of how difficult it is to win here,” Auriemma said. “Usually the best team wins when you get here, and we weren’t good enough.”
Hearing Auriemma say it’s hard to win may seem almost unbelievable, considering how easy it has made it look over the past three decades. Connecticut have long had the best team in their games – they’ve spent entire seasons blasting teams by 30 or 40 points and have nearly reached their 11 leagues.
UConn’s dominance may have started to decline, but the untitled trait is also a testament to the growth of programs built to challenge its position at the top of the rankings. South Carolina, for example, is now a two-time champion whose claim to power status is reinforced by the fact that, unlike in 2017, the Gamecocks had to go through the Huskies to win this championship.
“A lot of what we are able to do and achieve is behind their success,” South Carolina manager Dawn Staley said before the championship game. “I think the people at UConn treat their women’s basketball team as a sport. They are forced to do it because of all the victories and all the successes, but you could take a page out of their book. “
Whether this defeat is attributable to the fact that the Huskies are no longer what they used to be, the development of an even stiffer competition or just a series of bad breaks – perhaps all three reasons are valid – Auriemma is optimistic that his young team will have a lot to offer after season.
“I like our chances,” said Auriemma, who will return his two A-list recruits to Fudd and Bueckers and add Ayanna Patterson and Isuneh Brady, both of whom are ranked in the top five of ESPN’s 2022 class.
“Provided that we don’t have to face a season like this year, and – knock on the wood – if we stay healthy,” Auriemma said, “I expect to be back here next year”.