DALLAS — It seemed not so much like destiny as business as usual.
As the Connecticut Huskies rolled through the NCAA women’s basketball tournament with convincing win after convincing win — lifting their record to 36-0 and their record winning streak to 111 games entering the national semifinals — the usual sense of inevitability followed them.
While they weren’t the same players who had pushed UConn through the bulk of the winning streak and its four consecutive national championships, they were still the Huskies. Winning is just what they do.
Which is why the shock waves from UConn’s 66-64 overtime loss to Mississippi State in Friday night’s national semifinal continue to reverberate.
But to coach Geno Auriemma, the rare defeat was not a shock at all. He had been warning anyone who would listen that this season’s inexperienced Huskies have a long way to go to reach the level of their predecessors.
“We were playing way above our years and way above our experience level,” he said after the game. “Tonight it caught up to us. When we needed to be a little more mature with what we were doing, we didn’t have it. The kids had never really been in situations like that. You know, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Indeed, players such as sophomore forwards Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, who were along for the ride when Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck carried the Huskies to their expected glory last season, wilted in the face of Mississippi State’s early intensity and the spotlight of the big stage, playing timidly and committing uncharacteristic turnovers.
To its credit, UConn recovered its swagger, roaring back from a 16-point second-quarter deficit to take several small leads. “I told them at halftime that it’s a miracle we’re only down eight,” Auriemma said. “We knew we were in good shape. We knew it was going to be only a matter of five, six minutes before we got it back.”
And on cue, the Huskies reeled in the Bulldogs during the first four minutes of the third quarter, taking their first lead at 40-39 on Collier’s short bank shot with 6:15 left in the period. Junior Gabby Williams was the catalyst — she finished with 21 points, 7-for-12 shooting, eight rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals — but Samuelson (15 points) and Collier (11 points, eight rebounds) also contributed big plays.
In overtime, though, the Huskies were doomed by their inexperience in pressure situations, which led to turnovers and poor decisions.
The most obvious of those was senior Saniya Chong’s ill-advised drive to the basket with the score tied at 64-64 and less than 15 seconds remaining. UConn could have ensured at least another overtime period by taking the final shot, but Chong’s drive resulted in a turnover with 12.3 seconds to go — plenty of time for Mississippi State’s Morgan William to bury UConn’s perfect season with her winning jumper at the buzzer.
“This one hurts the most out of everything,” freshman guard Crystal Dangerfield said. “So much was on the line for this one. This one is going to sit for a while.”
That’s what Auriemma is hoping for. The plan is to use this defeat as a learning experience — and as motivation.
After all, Mississippi State’s 60-point loss to UConn in the 2016 tournament served as fuel for Friday night’s upset by the Bulldogs. Why can’t that work for the young Huskies?
“It doesn’t feel good,” Collier said. “It happened at the worst possible time for us. A lot of us hadn’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.”
Days between UConn losses (Nov. 17, 2014, to Stanford in overtime).
Consecutive wins in AAC play.
Largest margin of victory, 103-37 against No. 20 South Florida on Jan. 10
Victories by at least 40 points
More wins than the men’s record of 88, by John Wooden’s 197-74 UCLA Bruins
Combined margin of defeat in 2 overtime losses sandwiching the streak