When four-time defending national champion Connecticut began the season ranked No. 3 in the nation and with a slim 78-76 win over No. 12 Florida State in Tallahassee, head Coach Geno Auriemma said the Huskies were not the team everyone expected. They had a long way to go, despite extending their win streak to 76 games. Did Auriemma predict the future?
All season long my boss and I had gone back-and-forth about the “Goliath” of women’s basketball, Connecticut, being upset in the tournament and not winning its fifth consecutive national championship. Well, it happened, the Huskies were upset in the Final Four and by a team no one expected on Friday night. And last night a new champion was crowned, the Gamecocks of South Carolina won the program’s first national title.
Take a look at Connecticut’s historic run. The Huskies set an NCAA Division I basketball record for consecutive wins this season (111). They won their 100th-straight game against the eventual champion South Carolina on February 13, by 11 points, 66-55. After that it looked like UConn was untouchable once again. But a late season close call against Tulane on the road had everyone questioning if the Huskies could win it all.
I heard it from both sides: "UConn’s dominance is good for women’s basketball"… "No, it’s bad because people will stop watching"… "It’s women’s basketball - the ball is smaller so it’s easier"… That’s the one that probably boiled my blood more than anything.
I continued to argue that UConn’s dominance was great for the sport of women’s basketball. Geno Auriemma and his Huskies had people talking about women’s basketball more than ever. Whether it was hating on the Huskies or loving them, people were talking about them and to me the publicity was a good thing. The day after UConn’s Final Four loss, ESPN spent more time talking about the loss than Mississippi State’s historic overtime win. Morgan William, the smallest athlete on the court that night, stunned the Huskies with a buzzer beating jumper as time expired in overtime. Cameras quickly panned to Auriemma and what was he doing? Smiling.
I truly believed UConn wouldn’t win it this year. But as the NCAA Tournament field narrowed down, I grew more and more skeptical and began to doubt myself. When William dropped 41 points to lift Mississippi State past #1 seeded Baylor, I thought there was no way UConn wouldn’t advance to the finals. I thought if there was anyone still left to beat Connecticut, it was Baylor. I was wrong. Mississippi State pulled off one of the most historic upsets in NCAA history.
So then there were four:
Four-time defending champion and overall #1 seed Connecticut
The under-BULLdogs of Mississippi State who took down a #3 and #1 seed to get to its first-ever Final Four
The last team to beat UConn, Stanford
Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks in their second Final Four in three years
After Mississippi State took care of UConn, and Staley’s crew eliminated Stanford, 62-53, we had the most unpredicted national championship game.
Despite a late push by the Bulldogs in the championship game, South Carolina basically cruised to victory winning by 12. I was happy for head coach Dawn Staley, who came up short as a player at Virginia, most memorably in overtime of her senior year. It was the cherry on top of her historic basketball career as both a player and coach. She’s young and I look forward to seeing what else she will accomplish along the way. Her team is young and with a national championship under its belt, more and more elite players will have their eyes on spending four years in Columbia.
The scary thing is, UConn will be back and better next year, too. For those of you who think the Huskies' semifinal loss will make Geno Auriemma and crew slowly fade into darkness, you are so, so wrong.
I am thankful for the historic run and the attention it has brought to women’s basketball; a sport I have quickly grown to love since I began working in it four years ago.
Connecticut will be back. Expect another win streak to start in mid-November.