Appreciating UConn’s incredible run of excellence — Must-click women’s basketball links — Michigan reactions
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, March 30, 2022
Happy Basketball Wednesday! There will come a time when this all ends. I remarked on this to my friend and colleague Russ Steinberg as we sat on press row and watched UConn warm up for its Elite Eight matchup against NC State on Monday night in Bridgeport — that we’re watching something the sport probably isn’t going to see again: 14 straight Final Fours. Do you know how hard it is to get to ONE Final Four? UConn has gotten to 14 in a row.
It’s mattered, the UConn excellence. It’s built a durable fan base, a model for how coverage of women’s basketball can drive revenues at newspapers, ratings for women’s basketball can sustain regional sports networks. Geno Auriemma does his part on this, too. Did you know that after every postgame presser Geno does, he does… another one? A scrum for reporters? You think he does that because it’s that much fun to talk to me? No, he does it to build audience for women’s basketball.
I’ve been privileged enough to cover so much of UConn’s run of excellence, but it certainly predates me. This week, my daughter turned 12. The year Geno went to his first Final Four in 1991, I was 11.
Still, I’ve seen quite a bit. In that very building in Bridgeport back in 2016, I watched the most dominant performance I’ve ever covered in any sport, UConn’s 98-38 victory over a Mississippi State team coached by Vic Schaefer, with Teaira McCowan, Victoria Vivians and Morgan William on the court. Only in retrospect, perhaps, can we fully appreciate what it meant that the Huskies beat a team with so much talent by so much.
They haven’t all been blowouts. Up in Albany back in 2019, I was sitting next to Russ, too, as the two-seed Huskies beat Louisville, the top seed, 80-73, with six players, and even that overstates it — freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa played eight minutes, the other five players played 40, 40, 40, 40 and 32. Katie Lou Samuelson overcame a back injury and scored 29. Four of the eight Cardinals eventually played in the WNBA.
This is what they do. And it’s remarkable that they do it. Every time. Geno Auriemma was in a typically reflective mood as we sat with him late Monday in that postgame presser. He’d said that “programs don’t win this game”, that it takes individual players to get these teams to the Final Four — a Katie Lou, or magnificently on Monday night, Paige Bueckers and her 15 points during the two overtimes. The thing is, though: this program does win this game. Every time. For 14 years.
I asked Geno how he approaches that with his team.
“I try to use the success that we’ve had in the past not as like this is the standard and you need to live up to it. Again, that’s grossly unfair to do that to anybody.
“But what I have done, including with this team, is tell them that this is what we have done. So going into this game, I was pretty honest with them, I said, this is what we usually do in a game like this at this time of the year. And here’s why we do it. Here’s why we’re able to do it. If you all didn’t have those same qualities in you, we wouldn’t be in this game.
“So when you’re playing in this game, it’s not just another group of kids playing in this game. It’s a game that everybody is watching us play goes, that’s Connecticut playing. So you didn’t create that, but that’s what follows you around, and you’re supposed to use that as an added incentive or as an added boost to where you’re going as opposed to a yoke that you’re dragging, the tradition that you’re dragging, having to live up to it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy being these kids with the pressures that they’re under.”
Truly, the pressure had been ratcheted up on Monday, with NC State absolutely a worthy Final Four contender. And it wasn’t just Bueckers stepping forward to take this team on — Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd combined for 40 points, Aaliyah Edwards has found her groove as an offensive rebounder, Nika Muhl put out the fire on the defensive end early in the fourth quarter (though why Diamond Johnson didn’t get more time in this game will be a puzzle to me forever), Nelson-Ododa is the now-indispensable five with Dorka Juhasz out for the year.
It’s as if Auriemma and Chris Dailey know what they’re doing.
We’re going to be referencing this for as long as people talk about basketball. 14 straight, or whatever the final total ends up at — considering how many players return next year for UConn, it’s a real possibility that number keeps going up — it’s a number like the 10 titles in 12 years of John Wooden’s UCLA, or the 15 pennants and 10 world championships of the 1947-1964 New York Yankees, or the six WNBA Finals and four WNBA titles in seven years for Cheryl Reeve’s Minnesota Lynx.
It’s setting a standard, one that’s forced the rest of the sport to catch up. In many ways, it has. Winning a regional final was difficult in 2008, but it is exponentially harder in 2022.
Auriemma laughed as he recalled a recent conversation with a recruit, pointing out that if she came to UConn, she had a pretty good chance to get to the Final Four. After all, the last time UConn hadn’t made it there, Auriemma said, the recruit was three years old. That’s why Auriemma said he was determined to enjoy each one like it is his first — someday, if that recruit plays for him, she’ll be getting her first Final Four, whatever the streak is by then. And for those of us who care about the history of this game, it is important that we take notice of the era we’re in — one that could change at any moment.
“It could end tomorrow,” Auriemma said. “It could end next week. It could end next year, like everything else ends.”
But Paige Bueckers made sure it hasn’t ended yet. Somebody at UConn, it seems, always does.
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