DALLAS — This Connecticut team that everyone assumed would be vulnerable at the start of the season showed precious little of that vulnerability through 36 straight wins and the extension of the longest winning streak in college basketball history at 111 games.
So the irony of this unfathomable turn of events at American Airlines Arena on Friday night is that right when many assumed the Huskies were at their least vulnerable — the point at which UConn arrived in Dallas to nail down another NCAA title — they finally showed it.
This is an unfamiliar place for the players in the Connecticut locker room. They are disappointed and sad. They are questioning themselves and comforting one another. They are experiencing defeat at a time and place that nobody saw coming.
Mississippi State’s 66-64 overtime win for the ages sends the Huskies back to Storrs to watch somebody else play for a national championship. It was exciting, and it was stunning.
For the Huskies, it was completely new.
“We went in the locker room and we experienced some of the things that a bunch of other kids have experienced against us,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “When you get to this point in the season, and you lose, it’s the worst feeling imaginable. The excitement that was in Mississippi State’s locker room, we’ve been there. We’ve been there lots of times. We’ve experienced that probably more times than normal.”
And now it’s time to experience something different, the motivation and hunger that comes from not meeting your goal.
“This is going to hurt for a while,” junior guard Kia Nurse said. “I know that I’m going to remember this feeling.”
Katie Lou Samuelson admitted that it’s hard to fathom at the moment that the Huskies won’t be playing for a championship Sunday night. For Samuelson, the sophomore who broke her foot in the semifinal game a year ago and sat on the bench while the Huskies won their fourth straight title, it has particular sting.
“It’s hard to think about missing out on another opportunity to get a championship,” Samuelson said. “But I’ve got two more years left to work as hard as I can.”
Auriemma confessed that he thought this experience would have come for his team already, based on the departure of last year’s senior class of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, who were the top three picks in the 2016 WNBA draft.
He has played most of the season with a starting lineup that included two sophomores and two juniors, with only one senior getting significant playing time. His first player off the bench was a freshman and the Huskies didn’t have the benefit of depth.
The Huskies continued to dominate the women’s basketball landscape. They beat 10 ranked teams this season heading into the NCAA tournament, most by significant margins.
But Auriemma said he saw his team’s lack of maturity as Mississippi State jumped out to a 16-point lead in the early minutes of the second quarter before the Huskies rallied back in the third.
And he saw it again in the closing minutes when his players missed layups, free throws, open looks and turned the ball over. The Huskies were 1 of 7 from the field in the overtime period. They were outrebounded for the game, and finished with 17 turnovers.
“I’ve been talking about it all year,” Auriemma said. “We’re playing way above our years and way above our experience level. Tonight, it caught up to us. When we really needed to be a little more mature with what we’re doing, we didn’t have it. A big part of that was because of what they were doing.”
He said he thought his team was living a charmed life for much of the season.
“Pheesa [Collier] played like a fifth-year senior, and today she struggled. [Katie] Lou [Samuelson] has been, you know, incredibly consistent all year long. Today she struggled,” Auriemma said. “You take that and put it together against a really good team in this environment … they were just better. You know what? When stuff like this happens, it kind of makes me shake my head and go, ‘You know how many times this could have happened and it didn’t happen?’ The fact that it never happened, doesn’t mean I went home thinking, it’s never going to happen. I knew this was coming at some point. I’m just shocked that it took this long to get here.”
Auriemma knows better than anyone that no one is going to feel sorry for Connecticut. Next season the Huskies add Azura Stevens, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Duke who had 14 double-doubles in her sophomore season for the Blue Devils, as well as the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 6-1 wing Megan Walker from Virginia. The Huskies are bringing in four new players, the best recruiting class in the nation.
But that’s all fodder for next season.
In the meantime, there’s a pit in the stomach that comes after a big-game loss.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Collier said. “It happened at the worst possible time for us. A lot of us haven’t been in this situation before so we can really use it for next year to grow. I know none of us want to feel this way again.”
Freshman guard Crystal Dangerfield said she would “go back home and sit and think on this one.
“We will have this fresh in our minds, so we don’t have this happen again next year.”
Auriemma saw Morgan William’s winning shot go through the net as the buzzer sounded, ending his team’s historic run and its title hopes. For this year.
He smiled because he knows he can use this. It will probably make his team better.
And because, sometimes, you’ve got to smile when you see something amazing.
“Look, nobody’s won more than we’ve won,” Auriemma said. “I understand losing, believe it or not. We haven’t lost in a while, but I understand it. And I know how to appreciate when other people win.”