MOHEGAN INDIAN RES.- On March 4, 1988, the UConn women’s basketball team walked off the court at Pittsburgh’s Fitzgerald Fieldhouse following a Big East tournament quarterfinal loss to Boston College knowing its season was over.
The next 30 years have produced 30 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, 23 via automatic bids. The latest came Tuesday when the top-seeded Huskies rolled to their fifth straight American Athletic Conference tournament title with a 70-54 win over No. 2 South Florida at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“We take a lot of pride in things like that because of all the players that came before us,” All-American Napheesa Collier said. “There’s such a legacy and a tradition here. We don’t want to be the team that will let everyone down, whether it’s the former players, or coaches, or ourselves.”
The Huskies (32-0) are expected to be the overall No. 1 seed and the top seed in the Albany Regional when the field of 64 is announced Monday. They will host first- and second-round games at Gampel Pavilion starting either March 16 or 17.
It will be the 12th straight year and 21st time in those 30 years UConn has been seeded No. 1 in a regional. The run of 30 in a row is the third-longest in history. Tennessee is expected to get an at-large bid to its 37th consecutive tournament appearance while Stanford is expected to receive an at-large bid to its 31st straight.
“When you play women’s basketball at Connecticut, you’re supposed to go to the NCAA Tournament,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “That’s non-negotiable. That doesn’t mean you have to win the NCAA Tournament, but you have to go to the tournament. So far we’re holding up our end of the bargain.”
The only time the Huskies had to sweat out the Selection Show was in 1993 when there were doubts their 18-10 record and third-place showing in the Big East would get them an at-large bid. They would be given the equivalent of a 6-seed in the 48-team field. Only Tennessee (36), Georgia (32), Stanford (31), and Texas (30) have played in the event more since the NCAA Tournament started in 1982 and each of those four are expected to add to their total Monday as at-large teams.
By winning the conference tournament and with it the AAC’s automatic bid, the Huskies’ spot is secure.
“It’s a goal we have each season to get there,” UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson said. “This is what we have to do before the NCAA Tournament. If we take it lightly, there will be a negative vibe that we’ll take into the NCAA Tournament. This is good for the team, the school, all of us.”
UConn was the prohibitive favorite coming to the casino and took care of business.
The Huskies trailed for 24 seconds out of 120 minutes and coasted past Tulane and Cincinnati before being challenged, particularly early, by USF. UConn closed the first half with a 14-3 run to lead by 14 at the break and stretched their advantage to 23 in the third quarter. While the outcome was never in doubt, the Bulls made UConn work after losing two regular season games by an average of 40 points.
“It’s always tough playing a team three times and they did not go down without a fight,” UConn point guard Crystal Dangerfield said. “That’s going to help us going forward because that’s what we’re going to see in the NCAA tournament. Every game could be your last and it’s going to be tough.”
Azura Stevens was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player while Samuelson (her third straight selection), Dangerfield, and All-American Gabby Williams joined her on the all-tournament team.
Williams, who missed the semifinal against Cincinnati Monday after aggravating a hip injury against Tulane 24 hours earlier, made a steal and layup to open the scoring and finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists, five steals and a blocked shot in 32 minutes.
“I knew she was tough and she went out there and proved it once again,” Dangerfield said. “She’s our leader, our emotional leader, and she was great.”
While there was no rushing the court and certainly no cutting down of the nets - UConn tradition is the nets get cut only after a national championship is won - there was a satisfaction to winning three games in three days here. There were pictures to take and trophies to get and t-shirts to wear.
A crowd of 7,501 - the second-largest to see an AAC final - seemed to enjoy it as well.
“It is really important,” Samuelson said. “We are really excited about this. It is always fun to have this atmosphere after and just really appreciate what we did against our conference teams. This is something before the NCAA Tournament so we really want to make a point to end well here going into the tournament.”
Auriemma said Tuesday he would give the Huskies three days off and return to practice Saturday. With UConn on spring break next week, he compared the time between the tournaments to the period when the players take fall semester final exams. It will also give the Hobbling Huskies, Samuelson (left ankle), Dangerfield (shin splints, left leg), and Williams (left hip) some much-needed rest.
Then it’s more March Madness.
“Of course, there’s always something we want to get better at,” Williams said. “That’s the reason this program is so good, because there’s never a moment where we’re like, ‘OK we got it and we can kind of coast through.’ I think we have our next goal set. We have our first game back at Gampel and we will have new goals for that.”