Road to Final Four was not easy for UConn women's basketball

Published on Monday, 8 April 2019 21:01
Written by Carl Adamec

Journal Inquirer

TAMPA, Fla. - In the national championship-or-bust world that the UConn women’s basketball team - and no one else in its sport - lives in, the ultimate goal proved elusive for a third straight season.

But a Huskies’ club with more than their share (for them) of question marks in October found themselves playing in April.

Maybe they got as far as they could go, though the opportunity to take another step was there for them Friday night in the NCAA Final Four semifinals at Amalie Arena with a nine-point lead and about eight minutes to go. And there’s the part of Notre Dame’s 81-76 come-from-behind win that’s tough to take.

So UConn watched the Irish play for the national championship Sunday night instead of getting its own title shot against Baylor.

Could UConn have beaten Baylor, which won its third NCAA title with an 82-81 win over Notre Dame? No one knows. But the Huskies had a chance to find out, and it some ways they couldn’t have asked for more,

“There have been highs and lows just like any other season, but this team specifically really had to fight through this year and tried to figure a lot of things out,” UConn three-time All-American Katie Lou Samuelson lsaid. “It just seemed like everything, one after another after another, it just seemed like stuff kept happening. Everyone tried to figure out what we could do to fix it. For us we finally thought we were in a good spot. It is something we’re pretty proud of.”

“The postseason is hard, and the hardest thing to do is to win a national championship. You just have to put yourself in position to have a fighting chance. There was a point in the season that we could have easily not made it to the Final Four. There were times we didn’t know what we’d get from people. So how hard we fought to put ourselves in this position is amazing.”

UConn reached its record 12th consecutive Final Four to increase its NCAA record to 20 in 31 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. It built on its NCAA records of seven consecutive 35-win seasons, 14 straight 30-win seasons, and 26 consecutive 25-win seasons. It kept its perfect record (120-0) intact in the American Athletic Conference by making it six regular season and tournament titles in a row.

The losses in a 35-3 campaign were to an Elite Eight squad (Louisville) on the road that the Huskies would beat in a rematch, the eventual national champion on the road and the runner-up on a neutral court. The last eight minutes of the season will not and should not define them.

“It just kind of sucks because we didn’t play our best,” UConn two-time All-American and 2019 AAC Player of the Year Napheesa Collier said. “We didn’t get beat. We beat ourselves. I’m especially disappointed in the way I played. I just felt like I didn’t do things I normally do that’s expected from me on this team. It’s kind of hard to lose your last game that way.

“And it’s hard having it happen here three times in a row and not be able to get past this hump. But I’m really proud of what the team did this year and what we’ve been able to accomplish. Obviously it really sucks right now but we did do a lot of things that weren’t expected of us. So I’m really happy with this group and what we did do.”

The Huskies replaced starters Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams (and their 296 combined game appearances) along with sixth man Azura Stevens from a 36-1 record with a first-year sophomore starter and a pair of highly regarded freshmen.

They won their first seven games with ease, with the exception of a 10-point victory against St. John’s in the Paradise Jam that they trailed in until early in the fourth quarter. They then showed they’d be a team to be reckoned by going into South Bend and coming away with an 18-point win over the reigning national champion behind Christyn Williams’ 28 points.

But after coming back from fall semester final exams UConn headed west and needed to come from 12 points down in the second half to beat lowly Oklahoma and held off California down the stretch. While the Huskies showed their resilience, their vulnerability became obvious.

They’d lose twice in January, at Baylor to start and at Louisville at the end, for their first regular season losses since November of 2014. They’d win at Cincinnati on Feb. 2 but it was a performance and effort that felt like a loss, before regaining their footing the rest of February.

“We overcame a lot of adversity,” UConn point guard Crystal Dangerfield said. “From behind closed doors we had to dig ourselves out of holes that we were digging ourselves into.”

March started with a Senior Day celebration as Collier and Samuelson were inducted into the Huskies of Honor at Gampel Pavilion, but would soon turn troubling as Samuelson hurt her back while diving for a loose ball in the second quarter against Houston.

She’d miss the regular season finale and the AAC Tournament, but with Collier nothing less than spectacular and teammates like Megan Walker and Olivia Nelson-Ododa stepping up, UConn added another league title.

Passed over as an NCAA No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006, the second-seeded Huskies routed Towson, held off Buffalo, and rallied against UCLA to get to the Albany Regional final. Behind Samuelson’s 29 points and tourney MOP Collier, they avenged the loss to Louisville to return to the Final Four.

But following last-second overtime losses to Mississippi State and Notre Dame the previous two seasons, the Huskies found themselves in position to get over that semifinal hump. A 26-9 run by Notre Dame, however, stopped them cold.

“Everything felt great, and it felt like we were finally going to get past this game, and it was just a couple plays in a row that we kind of lost control of the game and changed momentum,” Dangerfield said.

UConn is 11-0 in national championship games. The only other program to win more than once and not lose in the final is Baylor (3-0).

“So 11 times we have left here happy and nine times we were disappointed, and all nine of those disappointments are the same in so many respects,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Sometimes you have to know that our team has limitations. If we can cover them up for the entire 40 minutes then we have a chance to win this thing. Unfortunately we couldn’t.”

The Huskies lose Samuelson and Collier to graduation and the WNBA. They were 145-5 (three NCAA Tournament losses, two regular season losses) with the 2016 national championship and four Final Four appearances and AAC regular season and tournament titles.

Three starters - Dangerfield, Walker, and Williams - and top reserve Nelson-Ododa return. McDonald’s All-American Aubrey Griffin signed last November and it’s likely Auriemma will add international players and/or graduate transfers to a roster that currently stands at nine.

It will be the first UConn team without a player that had won a national championship since 2008-09.

“We want to feel what those other players have felt winning championships. We just want to be a part of it,” Dangerfield said.

Posted in Newington Town Crier, UConn on Monday, 8 April 2019 21:01. Updated: Monday, 8 April 2019 21:03.