On College Basketball: In a ‘Rebuilding Year,’ UConn Women’s Team Redefines Dominance
Not many people, including Auriemma, would have bet the mortgage on the streaks — both in games and titles — lasting much longer. But entering Monday night’s game at Gampel Pavilion, and the renewal of a relatively new rivalry with South Carolina, the Huskies still had not lost since November 2014 (in overtime at Stanford) and were reaching for triple digits, a hair-raising 100 consecutive wins.
“As soon as you start talking about that, you know you’re going to lose,” Auriemma said earlier about the milestone. “So I wouldn’t even bring that up with them.”
Approaching game time against the 21-2 and No. 6-ranked Gamecocks, though, the subject was unavoidable. And after 12 successive blowouts in the American Athletic Conference, in which the Huskies have gone 75-0 since its formation, the prospect of stiffer competition was preferable.
With an eye on bigger games, like in the N.C.A.A. tournament, the milestone challenge “comes at a perfect time for us,” Auriemma said. “Maybe it’s exactly the game we need at exactly the right time.”
It’s not as if the act of breaking records is new to his program. A previous 90-game win streak (which surpassed the U.C.L.A. men’s team’s record 88-game win streak from 1971 to 1974) was bettered last month by UConn’s current run. If not for the 2014 Stanford defeat, in fact, the Huskies could have entered Monday night’s game on a 147-game run.
There is no doubt that a potential fifth straight national title, and 12th over all, is more appealing to Auriemma. But triple digits in consecutive wins would represent another symbolic groundbreaking and powerful statement in the continued and collective excellence of a women’s sports team.
Only once has Auriemma’s program come this close to 100 — a home-court winning streak that stood at 99 when an upstart St. John’s team won at Gampel in February 2012, before Connecticut’s departure from what was then a highly competitive Big East Conference.
“Senior night, packed house at Gampel, as always,” said Kim Barnes Arico, then the St. John’s coach, now in her fifth season at Michigan, where she has built a 21-5 tournament-bound team.
In a telephone interview, Barnes Arico recalled how she focused her players on competing hard in four-minute stretches, on catching their breath during timeouts and, by staying close, shifting the pressure to Connecticut as it neared the finish line to 100.
Trailing by 2 points in the final seconds, Barnes Arico decided during a timeout to try for the win rather than overtime in such a challenging environment. Shenneika Smith — “she hadn’t made a 3 in weeks” — sank the winning shot. In the locker room, Da’Shena Stevens, the leader of St. John’s and a senior from Stamford, Conn., held up her jersey to greet her coach as she entered the locker room.
But the biggest tribute came on a triumphant bus ride home.
“My phone rings — it’s Geno, calling to congratulate me, after what had to be a crushing loss,” Barnes Arico said.
Auriemma had been supportive of her efforts to elevate the St. John’s program, which is why, she said, “I can’t help but applaud what he’s doing there, going for 100 straight, just incredible.”
That said, she was “holding off” on reaching out, or rooting for either side, given her ties to South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley. Barnes Arico has coached under-18 and under-19 national teams with Staley, the three-time Olympian and, like Auriemma, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Either way, such a great story,” Barnes Arico said.
Staley’s team — built around her two frontcourt stars, 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates — presented Connecticut with its usual handicap of a size disadvantage. But in surmounting every obstacle on a schedule front-loaded with ranked opponents, the Huskies rapidly developed a cohesive Core Four to replace Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck, who were the top three picks of last year’s W.N.B.A. draft.
“We have no preseason all-Americans, but we have four really good players, and every time we need something, one of them comes up with something,” Auriemma said.
He was referring to the juniors Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse, and the sophomores Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, all of whom average double figures in points, led by Samuelson’s 21.4 and Collier’s 19.1.
If this wasn’t supposed to be a season of extended dominance, the question entering Monday night had evolved. Would the Huskies ever lose?
“It’s not if,” Auriemma said, “it’s just when.”
But if not right now, when is when?
Next season, Connecticut is planning to suit up Azurá Stevens, a 6-6 transfer from Duke who many believe would have been its best player this season. The Huskies will also add Megan Walker, rated by some as the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit. They will return six of their seven rotation players, the exception being Saniya Chong, who shares the point guard position with the freshman Crystal Dangerfield.
With no formidable opponent left on the conference schedule, and victories over most of its ranked opponents already recorded, an inquiring mind could wonder — at least until game time Monday night — whether the Huskies might in a couple of years be on the doorstep of 200.
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