Season like no other could throw UConn into the most unlikely NCAA women’s basketball title race

MEMORY POLICE – UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma sat at the podium in the media room of the Atlanta McCamish Pavilion, arms crossed, voice muffled and his typical charisma replaced with something unheard of for the 11-time national championship coach: helplessness and sense of defeat.

Auriemma’s Huskies had just fallen to Georgia Tech 57-44, their first loss to a non-ranked team in nearly a decade. They were two weeks into losing top recruiter Azzi Fudd in 2021 due to a foot problem and four days removed from the 2020-21 national player of the year, Paige Bueckers, who fell with a knee injury that would equate her for nearly three months. To add salt to the wounds, Nika Muhl was ruled out the day before the match with her own foot injury.

Knowing that they would be missing three guards in the foreseeable future was hard enough to resist; but the way UConn played – an anemic offensive outing that produced only five points in the fourth quarter – was far from what Auriemma and the rest of the basketball world had been accustomed to seeing from the Huskies over the past three decades. UConn players never showed up for interviews after the game, despite always doing so after heavy losses in recent years, and what Auriemma said afterwards was as surprising as the performance itself.

“What I see is a team that is somewhat shabby. And that’s all me,” Auriemma said. “Somehow, somehow, I don’t have the ability at this point to influence my players to make sure we’re in a better place mentally and physically and playing the kind of basketball we need to play.”

“I do not think it will be fixed. I really do not.”

If you would have told Auriemma that night that his Huskies would recover in late February and roar back to life in time to advance to the program’s first national title fight since 2016, he probably would not have believed you. But that’s where UConn is, five losses in the regular season and a few NCAA tournament wins over 1-seeds later. The Huskies will play South Carolina, who have spent the entire season as No. 1 in the country, on Sunday (20:00 ET, ESPN) in pursuit of their 12th national championship. And if they can make it, it will put an end to one of their most unlikely title races to date.

For as tumultuous as the 2021-22 campaign has been for the Huskies – seven of their nine rotating players missed at least three games due to illness or injury – it began with sky-high expectations both internally and externally. After falling short in the 2021 Final Four for No. 3 seed Arizona, UConn returned most of its biggest contributors, brought a stacked recruiting class with Fudd in mind and was ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls.

Things did not go quite smoothly at first. The team was overly reliant on Bueckers, and in its 73-57 loss to the Gamecocks in the Bahamas, the offense produced only three points in the fourth quarter, even with the second guard on the floor.

But December and January brought challenges Auriemma proclaimed that he had never experienced since arriving at Storrs. It was not only that the Huskies lost the star power in Bueckers and Fudd in 19 and 11 games respectively. But between Muhl, Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Dorka Juhasz and Caroline Ducharme, who also missed time, combined with a COVID-19 outburst around the holidays, UConn was at times down to six players in training – which required training players had to participate in drills with them – as well as in games, including their 72-59 loss to Oregon, which at the time was not ranked. When they returned from Eugene, Muhl described the team as “going through hell.”

After Georgia Tech (December 9) and Louisville (December 19) losses, the Huskies dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since the 2004-05 season. When they later relegated to Villanova in February, it cracked their series of 169 consecutive victories against conference teams.

“December and January were one of the toughest months I have ever faced here,” Nelson-Ododa said. “You never know who’s going out, who’s going to join. … Having to go through all that and figure out our roles and what we’re going to bring to the table was definitely a challenging part for us.”

With their guard corps exhausted, team members had to play out of position. Williams and Evina Westbrook drove the point when Bueckers and Muhl were out. The newcomer Ducharme was forced into a big role where the team struggled to replace the goals Bueckers provides and she largely managed the challenge.

“We had to change how we practiced because we were limited bodies, change how we played in games,” Nelson-Ododa said. “We kind of went through a couple of weeks where we really had to start all over again when we were two months into the season.”

Gone were also the typical 40-point blowouts from the past. Big East matches were closer than usual, and for the first time for many players, they had to learn to win victories in ugly games – what they could not do against people like Georgia Tech. Auriemma’s message through these winter months was to keep trudging along and that their only resort was to stick together.

Game

2:28

UConn hangs on late to knock out defending champions Stanford, establishing a title fight against South Carolina.

It was hard to recognize at times, but with Fudd back in the fold at the end of January, and Bueckers’ recovery going relatively smoothly, a light remained at the end of the tunnel that the team could enter the season’s most critical stretch fully out.

“This team needed a lot of upbringing to do,” Auriemma said. “Of course I think they have, otherwise we would not play [Sunday] night. If we had stayed the same, if we were the same team mentally and physically as we were then, I do not think we would still play. “

Victories over DePaul (January 26) and Tennessee (February 6) re-instilled confidence internally, as did robbers in the conference game before Bueckers’ return in late February. And by the time she was back on the floor, the team around her had evolved into a well-balanced, defensive-minded group where players understood how to excel in their roles and hone victories. Bueckers ’27-point outburst in UConn’s double overtime victory over NC State in Elite Eight represented the Huskies’ most impressive individual performance in the NCAA Tournament, but the rest of their races have been a tough, city-committee effort.

It was not just a contrast to how things went that night at Georgia Tech; it was, according to the players, a direct by-product of it, despite how Auriemma felt at the moment.

Even with UConn now healthy and match-tested, Auriemma is not entirely convinced he has the best team in the NCAA tournament. He admitted after the team beat defending NCAA champion Stanford in the national semifinals that the Huskies needed the Cardinal to be away from their A-game for a chance to win.

Still, Auriemma has been training long enough for him to know they are here for a reason. And this time, their huge mid-season growth ensured that they did not have to be wire-to-wire No. 1 ranked teams or be undefeated or have an unprecedented winning streak to earn it.

And that may be exactly what makes all the difference.

“You do not have to be the best team for a long time,” Auriemma said. “You just have to be the best team for 40 minutes or play the best for 40 minutes.”

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