Undefeated again with significant blowouts throughout the NCAA Women’s March Madness, the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team was poised to overcome last season’s “oops,” and win their record-setting 12th national title. The team from Storrs, Connecticut showed up to the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio looking up at four consecutive banners bragging their championship success. The one odd ball was the 2017 banner without a UCONN logo. That was the year that UCONN had learned its’ lesson when they realized failure in an upset to Mississippi State.
After all, this was the Huskies 11th straight trip to the Final Four, they had 36 wins without a loss and little competition throughout the season. Friday night, March 30th was to be another speed bump in their quest to a national championship. Notre Dame was certainly a good squad but not necessarily a formidable match for the might Lady Huskies.
The Huskies came out flat on Friday night, March 30th. By the end of the first quarter, the Lady Huskies were losing. Hmmm. However, by halftime, UCONN had come roaring back and went into the break winning 41-34. It seemed as if the entire crowd was rooting for “Goliath,” because the giant was back in control. The quiet green and gold fans were relegated to one section at the corner of the arena.
However, the NCAA gods forgot to tell the Fighting Irish; they refused to quit. Were they playing for Coach Muffett McGraw who has a public disdain for Geno Auriemma? Did that small group of “Irish Faithful” push this squad of ladies from the Midwest? Apparently so, as the Lady Huskies had to fight to the end of regulation to earn a tie before overtime found them knocked out of the tournament without a ladder, pair of scissors and a parade through Hartford.
“They just came out with a lot of energy from the opening tip and they pretty much sustained it throughout the whole game” said Crystal Dangerfield, UCONN’s Sophomore Guard. “They were able to answer our big plays with their own big plays and went on what seemed like longer runs. It came down to one last shot and she was able to hit that shot.”
The issue for the second year in a row is that the most dominant team in women’s basketball hasn’t been able to finish the journey. Auriemma is already in the Hall of Fame, is in the conversation when great coaches are discussed, is a living legend and he has won so often that his trophy case makes him look like a mini-hoarder. Has he done it all and has nowhere else to succeed?
“You really can’t describe what goes into — what goes into getting here and trying to win a championship. It’s very, very difficult,” said Auriemma. “For a long, long time, we made it look like it was easy, but it’s very, very difficult, as it’s played out the last two years.”
The women’s game is getting better. Both semi-final games were super contests, thrilling to the end and the championship game was more of the same, keeping the fans on the edge of theirs seats. It was good solid basketball. The crowds emptied into the Columbus bars and restaurants after the games feeling as if they had received a great value.
“First time we’ve ever had two overtime games in the Final Four. I think just great basketball. Both games, hard fought battles and exciting for the fans, said McGraw, Notre Dame’s coach. “That had to be a great TV game both times.”
That begs the question, what is wrong with UCONN. They played Friday night with six players. Clearly, this legendary program recruits the best and yet, Geno rotated six ladies while the bench tried to keep the starters pumped up. Unfortunately as much as the bench cheered the regulars on, the biggest emotional moment on Friday came when assistant coach Chris Dailey hustled onto the court facing up to Auriemma to ensure he wasn’t ejected for blowing up at an official. Coach Auriemma seemed frustrated and his demeanor carried over into the post-game press conference.
“Sometimes you have to be exposed to this and fail when it’s all on you. It’s a great learning tool,” said Auriemma. “But I’m a pretty smart guy. I don’t need to learn this shit two years in a row.”
UCONN is already the favorite to win the national championship in 2019. To see this team run the regular season table will not surprise any college basketball fan. To enjoy their march through the early brackets won’t even be fun. But after two years of failure in the Final Four, the national championship outcome is not a lock.
Instead, another Arike Ogunbowale will show up in a uniform other than UCONN’s to hit buzzer beaters in route to a celebration in some city beside Storrs.
HMG Guest Writer: Carl Ey