UConn women's basketball digests repeat of semifinals loss as ultimate goal was not achieved

Published on Monday, 2 April 2018 20:07
Written by Carl Adamec

Journal Inquirer

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Napheesa Collier’s dream of cutting down the nets here at Nationwide Arena did not come true.

But the UConn women’s basketball team’s forward may have avoided a nightmare when Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale connected on a 3-pointer with 0.1 second to go to give the Irish a 61-58 win over Mississippi State and the national championship Sunday.

Perhaps ESPN will spend the next 12 months showing Ogunbowale making her title-winning shot over Mississippi State’s Victoria Vivians countless times - like the network did the past year with the Bulldogs’ Morgan William and her buzzer-beater over Gabby Williams in Dallas - and not the jumper Ogunbowale hit over Collier with one second left in overtime Friday night of Notre Dame’s 91-89 win over the Huskies.

For the St. Charles, Missouri, resident, it will be a tough enough offseason digesting a second consecutive national semifinal loss after UConn entered the Final Four unbeaten.

“I thought we made a lot of big plays and we had a lot of opportunities to win the game. We kind of just ran out of time,” said Collier, who had 24 points Friday night and was named to the all-Final Four team.

But for the second consecutive year, the Huskies’ perfect run through a difficult non-league schedule and their American Athletic Conference slate ended two victories short of their ultimate goal.

Simply put, 36-1 isn’t good enough when you were 36-0.

“It’s the same situation, and we worked all season long to get ourselves back to this opportunity so you can’t feel good when it ends the same way,” UConn guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. “This year overall it was a much better game than we played this time last year. It went back and forth the entire game and they ended with that last shot and got the upper hand.

“Everyone is clearly upset. It’s basically the same team that went through it last year. To have the same outcome it seems with the same exact situation, it’s just heartbreaking. We gave ourselves a better opportunity than we did last year and played better the whole game but it still hurts. You just never know what’s going to happen this time of year. Nothing is guaranteed.”

The Huskies trailed by 13 in the first quarter, led by 11 in the second, trailed by one in the third, led by eight with 6:49 to go, and trailed by five with 20 seconds left in regulation and 45 seconds to go in overtime.

But Ogunbowale, a teammate of Collier and Samuelson on the United States’ gold-medal winning team at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games’ 3x3 competition, had the final answer Friday night and would repeat it on Sunday.

“It was one big play after another,” UConn guard Kia Nurse said, “and they just made one more big play than we did.”

As Notre Dame - which started five high school All-Americans - did against the Bulldogs on Sunday night in winning its second national championship to go with the one it captured on April Fool’s Day 2001.

The Huskies will settle for a record 11th straight Final Four appearance - the second-longest current streak is Mississippi State’s two - and 12th consecutive 30-win season, along with their fifth straight AAC regular season and tournament titles. They also made Auriemma the fourth women’s coach with 1,000 wins, a plateau he reached on Dec. 19 with a victory over Oklahoma.

By their own standards, it’s not enough.

“That’s the world that we live in,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “That’s the world that we created. I think I said something earlier in the week that we could be 70-something and two and look around and say that we didn’t have anything to show for it. It’s unfortunate. But these kids, the last five months, have been pretty amazing and pretty spectacular. Every single game that we have had to be great, we’ve been great.

“This will hurt a lot for them, obviously. As time goes by they will have a better appreciation for what happened this season, but they are not going to be able to forget this one. This one was a tough one.”

During its record Final Four streak, UConn is 6-5 in national semifinals, with three of the losses in overtime. Of course, the Huskies are perfect in national championship games - 6-0 in the last decade, 11-0 overall.

“That’s the only requirement that really players and coaches can honestly say, ‘Listen, we want to be there every year to have a chance to win a championship,’ ” Auriemma said. “If you knock on the door enough times, eventually you’re going to have a chance and you’re going to win.

“I like the fact that year in and year out we put ourselves in position to win it. To think that you’re going to win it every year and to think that every bounce is going to go your way and every shot is going to drop, that’s just completely unrealistic.”

The 2019 Final Four is set for Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida - site of UConn’s 2015 national championship win. Regionals will be held in Albany (New York), Chicago, Greensboro (North Carolina), and Portland (Oregon).

The Huskies will return three starters - two-time All-American and AAC Player of the Year Samuelson, Collier, and point guard Crystal Dangerfield. AAC Sixth Man Award winner Azura Stevens has one more year of eligibility but could opt for the WNBA Draft as she is 22 and the Duke transfer’s original class is graduating in May.

The losses are Nurse, the WBCA’s 2018 national Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-American Williams.

Nurse had more than 1,600 points and 400 assists in her career. Williams became the seventh member of UConn’s 1,000/1000 club Friday night. She and three-time Wade Trophy winner Maya Moore are the only Huskies to complete their careers with more than 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists, 300 steals, and 100 blocked shots.

The Class of 2018 finished with a record of 148-3, with all three losses coming in overtime, and the two NCAA titles. Williams is also the only player to see action in all 111 games of the Huskies’ record winning streak.

“You look at their record over four years at Connecticut, and I can list you a long list of kids in college basketball who were icons in the game and great players in the pros who didn’t win two national championships in college,” Auriemma said. “These two kids helped us do that. You always like to look at the big picture, and the big picture is pretty amazing for both Kia and Gabby. For the other guys, they get a chance to come back and build on this.

“I’ve been saying for the last 15-20 years that winning national championships is hard. I don’t think anybody would ever believe me because it just seemed so routine for awhile. But these last two years have been a big reminder that this is really hard to do. Lou has another chance. Pheesa has another chance. Crystal has two more chances, and we’ll see where that goes.”

While the Huskies know what they have in their returning starters and Stevens, the sophomores - Molly Bent, Kyle Irwin, and Batouly Camara - and the freshmen - Megan Walker, Mikayla Coombs, and Lexi Gordon - will get another opportunity to earn their coach’s trust. This season was the first time since 2003 that UConn did not have a player named to its league’s all-freshman team.

UConn will add two of the best high school players in the country in consensus national Player of the Year Christyn Williams and fellow McDonald’s All-American Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

The Huskies will again play one of them most difficult non-league schedules in the country. They are expected to host DePaul, Ohio State, Seton Hall, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt, visit Baylor, California-Berkeley, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma, and play three games in the Paradise Jam to be held in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Time will heal the hurt from Friday night’s loss. That time isn’t now.

“We fought back in every way that we could,” Nurse said. “That is what I love about this team and love about this program. They always pick players who will come in and fight to the very end.

“It sucks that your season gets defined over one game and one weekend when you have had an absolutely incredible season and you have overcome so many pieces of adversity that other people don’t see. Do we deserve better? Probably for the things that we have overcome and the things we have done. But I am proud of my teammates and proud of my coaches for everything that we have done. It will be OK.”

The only other time the Huskies lost back-to-back national semifinal games was in 2011 and 2012. How did they bounce back after they fell in 2012 to Notre Dame in overtime at the Pepsi Center in Denver? They won an unprecedented four consecutive national championships.

Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Monday, 2 April 2018 20:07. Updated: Monday, 2 April 2018 20:10.