For the first time since 2016, UConn women’s basketball ended the season as champions. With the NCAA Tournament cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Huskies final game of the 2019-20 campaign ended up being their AAC Tournament victory over Cincinnati on Monday night.
It’s an incomplete ending, one that sends Crystal Dangerfield, Molly Bent and Kyla Irwin out as the first four-year class without a national championship at UConn since Charde Houston, Ketia Swanier and Mel Thomas in 2008. It also snaps the Huskies’ streak of 14-straight seasons with at least 30 wins dating back to 2004-05 since they will finish with a final record of 29-3.
There’s disappointment in the fact that it’s such a sudden end to the season — even more so for the five seniors on the team. But at the same time, it’s hard to wonder what could’ve been for a UConn squad that was just hitting its stride entering the most important stretch of its schedule.
“The attitude and the feeling on the team was we’re playing our best basketball,” head coach Geno Auriemma said on a conference call Friday.
In their final six games of the season, the Huskies reached at least 79 points in every game and averaged 89.5 points per game while limiting opponents to just 48.2.
And while UConn spent most of the year piecing together good nights from a few players while others struggled, everyone in the rotation was contributing — best exemplified by six different players reaching double-figures in the win over Temple in the AAC Tournament. The Huskies were finally looking like a classic UConn team — a far cry from where they were just a month or two earlier.
“It wasn’t as it was two months ago where we felt we just don’t have it,” Auriemma said. “We just don’t possess the things you need. We’re not doing the things you have to be doing at this time to consider yourself a true Final Four contender. But what’s transpired over the last month has made it clear and obvious to everyone that yeah, yeah we are.”
Auriemma went on to break down some of those issues even further:
“A month ago or two months ago, I’m sitting there every day at practice and going home and going, ‘Man, we’re in for a load of disappointment at the end of the season because there’s just no way that this team could reach the goals that they have. We’re just not prepared for that. We don’t function like that. We don’t operate like that. We don’t conduct ourselves like that.’ Every day at practice and me as a coach, I’m responsible for that and I felt that weight, I felt that responsibility,” he said.
But then a light switched on. For Olivia Nelson-Ododa, it was the Oregon game. Immediately following the 18-point loss at Gampel Pavilion, Auriemma said the sophomore center transformed from one of the worst practice players on the team to one of the best. For Crystal Dangerfield and Megan Walker, it wasn’t until a conversation with their coach that they realized they couldn’t look to anybody else to save the day but themselves.
“There came a point in time during the season where I really challenged Crystal and Megan to step up and take responsibility for our program,” Auriemma said. “There was a point where I said ‘Other people did it when you were younger, it’s your turn now to do it for the younger players on our team and for yourself because you’ve never proven that you can do it.’ And to their credit, they really responded.”
Entering the year, UConn needed to rely on an entire roster of players who never had to carry the team themselves. Last season, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson shouldered the load. Dangerfield only needed to be a facilitator, Walker could afford to just take what the defense gave her, Nelson-Ododa was nothing more than a bench piece.
Then Collier and Samuelson left. And suddenly, Dangerfield had to be a steady presence both scoring and passing the ball on offense every night, Walker needed to live up to her billing as a former No. 1 recruit and Auriemma crowned Nelson-Ododa as the most important player on the team.
Those players didn’t immediately live up to those expectations from the outset and because of that, there were some tough losses and a whole lot of ugly basketball. But eventually, things clicked for each of them.
“Crystal responded with probably the best season she’s had since she’s been at Connecticut and Megan went from last year, being an option to becoming the option. To becoming the go-to person,” Auriemma said. “And Liv? Liv went from not being a starter, being a part-time contributor to being someone that was crucial, that if we don’t have you on the floor, we can’t win.”
As a team, Auriemma pointed to the Huskies’ 105-58 win over Cincinnati in the third-to-last game of the regular season as a turning point. Up until then, it had been one step forward followed by two steps back time after time. But before that game, they finally realized that nobody was walking through the door to save the day.
“Maybe the fact that they were scared...It better happen right now or it’s not going to happen,” Auriemma said. “I’m not necessarily a scary guy but I think they were a little bit afraid that day.”
“They responded and they just kept building on it.”
The Huskies will never get a chance to test their progress and try to redeem themselves against the likes of Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina again. Where UConn seemed to be primed to take off, that point proved to ultimately be the peak.
But if it’s going to end this way, UConn went out on a high note with the AAC title. While the program aspires for more than just conference championships, the win went far beyond the trophy. It was a celebration of all the work the team put in during the season and all the progress they had made.
Dangerfield’s smile was never bigger than it was as she dumped a Gatorade cooler full of confetti on Auriemma. Nelson-Ododa laid on the hardwood doing a snow angel in the confetti. Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat basked in the aura of their first championship celebration as Huskies.
After a long season where the players had to endure questions about why they weren’t good enough and why they weren’t living up to the UConn standard, they got one night to celebrate. That night, they were good enough and they lived up to the UConn standard by capturing their final AAC trophy and forever securing for the program a perfect record in the conference.
It may not have been a national championship celebration. But based on the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a better way to go out.