WEST HARTFORD - Breanna Stewart never predicted it would happen, though the former standout for the UConn women’s basketball team often spoke of wanting to win four national championships with the Huskies.
UConn freshman Christyn Williams, who like Stewart six years earlier swept high school Player of the Year honors, went there at coach Geno Auriemma’s Fore the Kids charity golf tournament at Hartford Golf Club, though she limited her talk to one title.
The Huskies have lost twice in their last 149 games - both in overtime, both in the NCAA Final Four semifinals. Williams, who signed with the Huskies last November, took the 91-89 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame on March 31 hard.
“I was committed when they lost so I’m a part of the family,” Williams said. “I was hurt. It was devastating. But we’re going to get it back. Mark my words, guys, we’re going to get it back.
“We’re going to get that championship. People are going to feel UConn. We’re going to win the national championship.”
Of course, what is the 5-foot-11 guard from Little Rock, Arkansas, supposed to say: We’re hoping to get to the Sweet 16 and finish in the top three in the conference?
The Huskies return three starters - seniors Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, and junior Crystal Dangerfield - from last season’s 36-1 club. The additions are Williams and fellow high school All-American and Team USA U-18 member Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
“The coaches have instilled in us that work ethic and that fire that we have to,” Williams said. “This is what UConn does. We win. So to lose two years in a row is not good. So we’ve been working so hard this summer, and the season doesn’t even start until October. I just feel it. I sense it. We are going to get it.”
Reigning national champion Notre Dame figures to be No. 1 in the preseason polls this fall as the Irish return four starters and welcome back All-American Brianna Turner from injury. UConn and Notre Dame will play Dec. 2 in South Bend.
“I might pretend like I’m from Chicago and I might vote early and often and make sure we are not No. 1,” Auriemma said with a smile. “I can’t imagine we’ll be No. 1, and we shouldn’t be. Notre Dame should be No. 1 and maybe their second team should be No. 2. I don’t know.
“But it’s been proven over and over and over again over the years that it doesn’t matter. Certainly to us - 1, 2, 3, 15, it doesn’t matter. Some teams can’t handle being No. 1, and some teams it doesn’t bother. We’ll be all right. I like it.”
And Williams has liked what she’s seen in her first few weeks on campus.
“I believe in the program,” Williams said. “I believe in my teammates. I believe in myself, and I believe in the coaches. It’s there. We just have to get it.”
According to Oregon coach Kelly Graves, the Ducks and UConn are talking about putting together a nationally televised home-and-home series. A series would not begin before the 2019-20 season because the Huskies’ non-league schedule for the coming year is set.
UConn leads the series with Oregon 3-0, but the first two wins came when the Ducks were coached by Paul Westhead. The only meeting with Graves at the helm came in the 2017 NCAA Bridgeport Regional final at Webster Bank Arena with the Huskies rolling 90-52 win. It was the final victory in UConn’s record 111-game winning streak. For Oregon, it was its first Elite Eight appearance. The Ducks returned to the regional finals last March but lost to Notre Dame.
UConn’s 14-game non-league schedule for 2018-19 was released last week. Auriemma was asked if he was happy with it.
“No,” he replied. “Last year I was because we had a really experienced team. This year the schedule is harder and the team isn’t as experienced. And the road schedule is brutal. I’m not jumping up and down about it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we have it. But it’s not like, ‘Yeah, man, I can’t wait.’ This is going to be tough.”
UConn will play four home games, four neutral site games, including one at Mohegan Sun Arena, and six on the road, including games at Notre Dame, Louisville, and Baylor.
“The way the schedule fell, sometimes you get caught in those situations,” Auriemma said. “We pushed a couple games back that we couldn’t fit in to get in another home game. When you try to fix something at the beginning, you have to pay for it on the back end.”
‘Dean’ of coaches
Thirty years ago, the running joke was that Michael Jordan’s college coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith, was the only one who could him under 20 points per game.
Well, Stewart - in her third season with the Seattle Storm - leads the WNBA in scoring at 21.9 points per game. Her best scoring average at UConn was during her sophomore year at 19.43.
“The older pros love to tell me, ‘Now that she isn’t shackled by being in college, now that her coach isn’t holding her back, the sky is the limit for her,” Auriemma said. “That’s why she has all that energy. She only played 20 minutes per game in college. We didn’t wear her out.”