Why you should care
Because this team isn’t invincible — even if it looks that way.
Pride with a side of sheepishness is the best way to describe University of Connecticut players’ reaction to their record-breaking 88-point victory over St. Francis in the first round of this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament. St. Francis players were simply dumbfounded. “We’ve never seen that put into action the way they did today,” said St. Francis forward Cydney Smith, referencing UConn’s unparalleled cohesiveness.
Before losing to Mississippi State in the Final Four to snap an astounding 111-win streak last season, coach Geno Auriemma’s program won four straight national titles. Now the 36-0 Huskies have launched another undefeated run and are gunning for a seventh title in 10 seasons — a relentless march based on superior talent and discipline. They’re so dominant that only two opponents, Notre Dame and Texas, have lost by single digits this season. Simply put, the Evil Empire has elevated our understanding of what the women’s game can be. UConn is a sign that, once the field of Davids closes in on Goliath, women’s basketball will vault ahead. And while Connecticut’s coaching staff will go to great lengths to prevent that from happening, their few close games — and that loss to Mississippi State — reveal a blueprint to upset the Huskies. But does any team in this year’s Final Four have a chance to make it happen?
Former Huskies center turned ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo says UConn won’t stumble for lack of effort. “You’ll never catch them sleeping,” says Lobo. “Not while [Auriemma] is the coach.” Instead, teams must exploit minuscule chinks in Connecticut’s armor. Let’s not go so far as to call them deficiencies.
On-ball defense, communicating in the half-court offense, anything that can hurt us.
UConn guard Gabby Williams, on the Huskies’ vulnerabilities
Connecticut’s close games and few losses typically come against teams with big, bruising front lines. Exhibit A: a four-point Huskies win over Texas in January. The Longhorns outrebounded UConn by six, using size and strength to give UConn fits. Similarly, Mississippi State, the only team in college basketball with current players who beat UConn, eked out a two-point victory last season by dominating the paint. The Bulldogs match UConn’s size up front and have enough talent at the guard position to compete. If Sunday’s NCAA championship game provides a rematch, Mississippi State 6-foot-7-inch center Teaira McCowan — who’s averaging 18.1 points and 13.6 rebounds per game this season — could muscle her way to another stunner.
On Friday, Mississippi State (36-1) will meet Louisville (36-2). Louisville doesn’t boast the elite size of UConn or Mississippi State, but what the Cardinals do have are two players who can catch a hot hand and boast Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year trophies. Averaging 18.7 points per game and hitting 42 percent from the 3-point line, junior guard Asia Durr is the “type of player who can go get 40 points on any night,” says Lobo. If they make the final, Durr and fellow backcourt assassin Myisha Hines-Allen (46 percent from 3) will both need breakout games to upset the Huskies.
It might sound simple, but the reason for Connecticut’s generational dominance is coaching. Huskies coaches constantly drive their elite athletes toward self-examination of their vulnerabilities such as “on-ball defense, communicating in the half-court offense, anything that can hurt us,” says UConn sophomore guard Gabby Williams.
While Williams doesn’t mention interior play, she hints at another X-factor for Friday’s semifinal, a rematch of UConn’s nine-point victory against Notre Dame in December. In that game, Fighting Irish guards Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale carried the load, scoring 21 and 19 points respectively. It’s a sign that even though Notre Dame (33-3) has fought through injuries (including four players out with torn ACLs), the Irish have a rare combination of size and diverse backcourt skill to hang with the Huskies. Much like Connecticut, Notre Dame can hit triple digits scoring and dominate the glass. In their Elite Eight win over Oregon, the Irish had a 51–29 rebounding edge.
In order to puncture perfection, a UConn foe must either push the Huskies around or shoot them out of the gym. A championship rematch with Mississippi State is the best shot — again — for a day of reckoning.