MINNEAPOLIS — UConn‘s women’s basketball team played in and won its first NCAA final in this city in 1995. And in 10 subsequent appearances in the national championship game, coach Geno Auriemma and his program were undefeated — until Sunday night.
Those 49 points were the second fewest UConn had ever scored in an NCAA tournament game; the lowest came in a 75-47 loss to Vanderbilt in the second round of the 1992 tournament.
Prior to Sunday, the last time the Huskies struggled this much offensively in an NCAA tournament loss was the 2008 Elite Eight, in a 73-50 loss to an LSU team led by a dominant post player in Sylvia Fowles. On Sunday, they ran into another in South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, the consensus national player of the year and Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
“I’ve said this all along: You have to be really good, and you have to be a little bit lucky to win the national championship,” Auriemma said. “First things first, though, you have to be really good. You have to be really well-balanced and you have to be all the things that South Carolina is. You have to have good guard play. Your big guys have to be able to dominate either at one end or the other. Then you need a little bit of luck.
“The 11 times that we won, I would say maybe all 11 — but at least 10 — we had the better team. We played like we were the better team, and we were well balanced and we had all the bases covered and we had everything that you needed to win a championship.”
Auriemma didn’t feel that was the case this season. The Huskies had to get past a serious challenge from UCF in the second round and then survive a double-overtime game against No. 1 seed NC State in the Bridgeport Regional final.
“We said when we got here, we’re going to need a little bit of help from Stanford on Friday night, and they didn’t shoot the ball like they normally do,” Auriemma said. “And we were going to need a little bit of help tonight, and [South Carolina] didn’t cooperate.”
This is now the longest NCAA title drought — six years — for the Huskies since they won their first in 1995. The second national championship came in 2000, and the rest came in bunches: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Then in 2017, the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak was ended by Morgan William’s buzzer-beating jump shot in overtime, as Mississippi State beat UConn in the first of four consecutive national semifinal losses. Notre Dame defeated the Huskies in the Final Four in 2018 and 2019, and Arizona topped them last season.
UConn did manage to beat Stanford on Friday as the Cardinal’s offense struggled. But the tone set from the start Sunday was not in the Huskies’ favor. South Carolina shot 50% from the field en route to a 22-8 first-quarter lead, and the Huskies were never able to catch up.
UConn sophomore Paige Bueckers, who missed 19 games after suffering a knee injury in December, returned to help UConn make its 14th consecutive Final Four. Her 27-point performance in the Elite Eight proved season saving, but Bueckers was limited to 14 points in both Final Four games.
“It was an amazing weekend. Just being able to be here with my team and spend more time with each other, build more memories, and to do it at home was amazing,” said the Minnesota native. “I mean, nobody in my position would be happy right now, so I’m obviously upset just with the way things ended.
“Super proud of this team for how far we’ve come and all the adversity we’ve dealt with and all we’ve overcome to get to this point. But at UConn, it’s national championship or nothing. So obviously upset, frustrated, disappointed.”
Auriemma credited South Carolina’s defense for limiting Bueckers.
“We knew that was going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think from the beginning of the game our offense ever looked like it was in any kind of rhythm, any kind of flow. Then Paige tried to take it upon herself to do — that never works, when one person is trying to. But their guards completely, I thought, dominated the game on the perimeter and made it really difficult for any of our guys to get any good looks.”
He acknowledged that the Huskies weren’t 100% physically; forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa had a groin issue, and guard Azzi Fudd missed shootaround because of an illness. But Auriemma said that as well as South Carolina played, it likely wouldn’t have made a difference.
“It was just a nonstop series of events that we had to keep dealing with,” he said of the season. “It just didn’t stop all year long. I think it was a remarkable effort by them to stay together as well as they did throughout the entire year, and to be in this game.
“But then once you get in this game, you want to win this game. You’re not just happy to be here. But I think when this wears off, I think they’ll appreciate the effort that it took to get here.”