When you play for a team as decorated as the Connecticut Huskies, it can be hard to step out from the shadows of 11 national titles, nine (now ten) Final Four appearances, and countless other streaks. However, the newest cast of characters have a unique claim to Connecticut fame. Monday’s 90-52 win over Oregon is the first chapter of the legacy of this year’s Huskies team.
Derailing the Ducks
If Saturday’s win against UCLA was an off night for the Huskies, Monday was near perfect on both sides of the floor. By the end of the first quarter, UConn worked up a 28-13 lead, with 13 points coming from Oregon turnovers. Prior to Monday night, Oregon averaged 74 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, UConn’s superb defense held them to 52 points in the Regional Final.
On the flip side, the Ducks conceded 32 total points to the Huskies from turnovers, 87.5% of those points came in the first half (28 points). “They were pressuring us. They were denying us all the passing lanes,” said Sophomore guard Maite Cazorla. Coach Kelly Graves added, “I just don’t think we were able to handle [the pressure] early, I think just kind of the shock of how good they are … got us on our heels quickly.”
The youth of Oregon showed in their lack of exposure to the well-oiled machine that is UConn. Now they have enjoyed a rite of passage all elite teams in women’s college basketball must experience – a loss to UConn. “We got to go against UConn and everybody in this tournament, I think we all learned a lot” commented freshman forward Ruthy Hebart. Fellow freshman Sabrina Ionescu added, “we’re obviously going to learn from this loss. I think you have to learn from every loss, but we’re going to put it behind us and just enjoy this experience.”
While the Ducks’ youth was not the secret weapon to propel them past UConn, it will be what establishes them as an elite team, “I can’t wait. I think it’s going to be a fun group to watch mature,” said Graves. He is confident great things will happen as freshman starters Hebart, Ionescu and Mallory McGwire mature, “we have the make-up, we have the resources, we have the University brand, we have everything, and now we have really, really good student-athletes to be able to make [a deep run into the NCAA Tournament] a reality in the future.”
Making History and Forging a New Legacy
On the other side of the court was a team riding the wave of history, while trying to make a name for themselves. “I couldn’t be happier for this group,” said head coach Geno Auriemma on Monday night, “They had a lot of question marks going into the season.” The 2016-17 team made their historic run to 111 consecutive wins (and counting) with no returning All-Americans, and no super stars.
When UConn defeated South Carolina to secure their 100th consecutive win, Auriemma stated, “This 100-win streak isn’t theirs … but if they win a national championship that all theirs. So, that means a lot, I think, if we’re able to do that down the road than what happened tonight.”
The streak may belong to Kia Nurse, but a successful run to a 12th program national title would, “we have an opportunity to [to make our own history] right now ,” said Nurse Monday’s post game press conference. Sophomore Gabby Williams added, “I think every team has an identity. I’m glad we found ours kind of at the right time, and I think the momentum we have is really good.”
Where players of UConn-past like Taurasi, Breanna Steweart and Sue Bird were natural leaders, today’s UConn stumbled into it. “I think both of us were forced into leadership roles,” said Nurse, “this is a thing that neither one of us have had to do at all in our careers.” Although the role is more public, it’s not completely new. Williams added, “[Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson] did everything for us last year, [the] last two years. But the thing about them too is, they showed us and they taught us how to do it ourselves.”
Newly minted All-Americans Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, as well as Williams (second-team All-American )and Nurse (Honorable Mention) look to secure their place in UConn history with an NCAA title. A win on the largest stage would serve to justify all the hard work done behind the scenes.
“Sometime it doesn’t feel perfect … we lose a lot in practice” said Williams. The constant challenge is ultimately what makes this team successful, “we just have such high standards for ourselves, and the coaches put so much on us that when we get into the game, it’s easier almost. It’s fun.” The fun continues in Dallas as the Huskies meet Mississippi State in the Final Four on Friday.