DALLAS, March 31 – This was the year that the UConn women’s basketball team would be vulnerable. After three starters were drafted in the first round of the WNBA draft, this would be the year that the Huskies would lose a game or two. Right?
It didn’t work out that way. The Huskies played with maturity and poise and rallied to beat Florida State in their opening game. They earned a hard-fought win over Baylor. They overwhelmed South Carolina in February. They won every game they played – 36 straight to extend their record winning streak to 111 games.
They were on the road to a fifth straight NCAA national championship.
Until Mississippi State got in their face with ferocious rebounding, a swarming defense and 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan clogging up the middle of the lane. The Bulldogs led by as many at 16 points in the first half and saw UConn rally to take the lead in the third quarter.
But Mississippi State, a team that lost to the Huskies by 60 points in last year’s NCAA Tournament, refused to buckle as so many UConn opponents have over the years. UConn’s Gabby Williams blocked a shot by 5-foot-5 Morgan William at the end of regulation to force overtime.
But in OT, it was Morgan William with a game-winning shot at the buzzer to put No. 7 Mississippi State into Sunday’s NCAA Tournament championship game against South Carolina with a historic 66-64 semifinal win over the top-ranked Huskies. It was one of the most historic upsets in women’s basketball history — snapping an 111-game winning streak and denying the Huskies an opportunity to play for a national title.
At the end, UConn coach Geno Auriemma could only smile as William sank that tough shot over Gabby Williams. He knows what that feels like. His Huskies have done it plenty of times.
“We’ve been there lots of times,” Auriemma said. “We’ve experienced that probably more times than normal.
“Today, you know, they deserved to win. They beat us. We had our chances. I mean, they beat us. They took us away from the things that we like to do. We didn’t have the kind of maturity that you need to win at this level at this time of the year,” he said.
The Bulldogs (33-5) took a 64-62 lead in overtime when McCowan scored on a layup with 1:12 remaining. The Huskies tied the game at 64-64 on a pair of Katie Lou Samuelson foul shots with 25 seconds remaining. Samuelson hit the floor hard after a shove and an elbow to the throat from Dominque Dillingham. The Bulldogs were called for a flagrant foul giving UConn the ball after Samuelson’s free throws.
With 12 seconds left, Soniya Chong tried to drive to the basket but turned the ball over when she ran into Morgan William, giving the Bulldogs the ball and an opportunity to pull off the stunning upset.
“I always tell my team, one play doesn’t cost you a game. It almost never does,” Auriemma said. “One play doesn’t cost you a game. But a lot of times, you know, one play will win you a game. That’s exactly what she did.”
Morgan William finished with 13 points for Mississippi State while Victoria Vivian had a game-high 19 points. The Bulldogs pulled down 14 offensive rebounds. For Connecticut, Gabby Williams led the way with 21 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Samuelson had 15 points. Naphessa Collier had 11 points while Kia Nurse finished with six.
“What an unbelievable, gutsy performance that no one in the country, including all of y’all, probably thought could happen. And that’s okay,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “But we knew it could happen. They have tremendous heart. They also have a little pride. We had our pride stepped on last year by another great team, just like that one today.”
The Huskies (36-1) beat six top 10 teams in the first 10 games of the season including wins over top 20 teams Baylor, Notre Dame and Maryland on the road.
Growing pains? There were no growing pains. The Huskies marched through the regular season.
“Some of our young guys got a little bit ahead of themselves (in growth this season),” Auriemma said. “That’s okay. We went in the locker room (tonight) and we experienced some of the things that a bunch of other kids have experienced against us.
I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our kids. They had an incredible run. But we came up against a much better team tonight.
Schaefer savored the victory afterward. His Bulldogs are in the championship game for the first time. “This was about two basketball teams, two great teams, competitors, tough, physical, aggressive basketball teams. We beat the greatest team, with the greatest streak in the history of sports.” he said. “You got to give them a lot of credit. We didn’t have to play them the best out of seven. Didn’t have to play the best out of five. We just had to beat them one time, just beat them one time.”
Despite the defeat, Auriemma knows how far this team has come.
“1’m proud of what they’ve been able to do, how much they changed from last October, you know. When we started October 15th to where we are today,” he said “These kids were way older than they were supposed to be. They should have shown their age early on in the season, November, December, at some point. We just kept playing like older, older players, more mature players.”
One reporter wanted to know why Auriemma was grinning after Morgan William sank her game-winning shot for the Bulldogs.
“Look, nobody’s won more than we’ve won,” he said. “I understand losing, believe it or not. We haven’t lost in a while, but I understand it.
“I do know how to appreciate when other people win.”