For the first time since 1988-89 — the year of the program’s first NCAA Tournament — UConn women’s basketball’s season ended before St. Patrick’s Day. That isn’t the Huskies fault, of course, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college basketball tournaments, the NBA, NHL, MLB and essentially all public gatherings in the United States until further notice.
It’s almost fitting for this season to end in such a strange way. This was one of the most unique years for UConn in recent memory, from Geno Auriemma’s health issues, to the Evina Westbrook waiver saga, and Kobe and Gigi Bryant’s shocking deaths, all while games were being played.
Let’s take a look back at the season that was for the Huskies:
Entering the new season, UConn faced the tall task of replacing Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, the top scoring duo in program history and two of the better players to ever come through Storrs. The Huskies also lost rising junior Mikayla Coombs, who transferred to Georgia.
With a roster that had been thinned out due to light recruiting classes and a handful of departures over the years, UConn brought in Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat as freshmen while adding Evelyn Adebayo and Evina Westbrook as transfers.
There was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the team before November. But Auriemma predicted how the season will play out almost perfectly prior to First Night.
“When we’re good, we’re maybe not at the level that we’ve been some other times and when we’re not good, we’re maybe a little bit less than where we’ve been some other times,” he said. “But when we’re good, we’re still better than most teams in the country. And that’s really the only thing that matters is how do you compete? How do you compare against the other teams around the country? And I think by the time January, February, March, when it really matters comes around, we’re going to be okay.”
Westbrook’s waiver denied
One of the biggest — if not the biggest — storylines entering the season was Evina Westbrook’s eligibility status. UConn submitted a waiver on her behalf that would’ve allowed her to play immediately instead of sitting out because of the situation she left at Tennessee (though the details of what happened were never specified). Prior to the decision, Auriemma said he felt good about their chances of an approved waiver.
However, the NCAA denied the request and Auriemma quickly fired back.
“One of the comments made by the committee was what happened to Evina was pretty much normal,” he said at the time. “Well if that’s normal, then everybody else that I talk to has been doing it the wrong way. Because if one of my players went through what Evina went through, there’d be an investigation. It wasn’t normal.”
The school appealed, which the NCAA also shot down two weeks later. That’s when all hell broke loose. UConn athletic director David Benedict came out hard against the decision in a statement while Auriemma blamed Tennessee’s athletic department for not supporting Westbrook’s decision to transfer — despite UT athletic director Phil Fulmer complaining that the NCAA didn’t approve the waiver of one of Vols’ men’s basketball players.
As a result, Westbrook sat out the entire season. She underwent left knee surgery on New Years’ Eve — the same knee that was operated on in June — but is expected to be ready for summer workouts, assuming those start on time.
The regular season
UConn opened the season with a ho-hum 72-61 win over Cal, a game Auriemma described as “weird” 11 times in his postgame press conference. Kyla Irwin got the surprise start while the “Core Four” of Megan Walker, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Crystal Dangerfield, and Christyn Williams scored 70 of the team’s 72 points.
The Huskies continued to struggle through the next few games and Auriemma made clear where expectations should lie for his team.
“This ain’t my past teams,” he said. “You’re going to have to stop all the comparisons between past teams and this team. This isn’t anything close to past teams. So what we’ve seen in the past is not what we’re seeing right now.”
“We don’t necessarily have a lot of ways to score if we aren’t making shots,” Auriemma conceded at one point in January.
With an offense struggling to find an identity, UConn appeared to take a hit when Crystal Dangerfield went down with a back injury, sidelining her for two games. But the Huskies kept on winning.
Molly Bent earned her first career start and helped guide the offense to a blowout victory over Dayton. The following game against Seton Hall was the best of her career with 10 points, four rebounds and three assists, but freshman Aubrey Griffin stole the spotlight from the senior.
Playing where her father starred in college, Griffin went off for 25 points and 12 rebounds. Her performance was critical in helping UConn erase a nine-point deficit and eventually take a 92-78 victory.
After that, the Huskies renewed their rivalry with Notre Dame... only to blast an awful Fighting Irish squad, 81-57.
Shortly after that, news broke that Auriemma underwent a minor surgical procedure to help with symptoms of diverticulitis, which forced him to miss UConn’s final game of 2019. Chris Dailey took over as acting head coach against Oklahoma as the Huskies cruised to a dominant victory behind a 27 point, 15 rebound, seven block performance from Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
In early January, UConn dropped its first home game since 2013, to Baylor. After three quarters of back-and-forth basketball, the Huskies’ offense froze up and made just two shots in the fourth as the Lady Bears ran off with a 15-0 run and the game.
Afterwards, Auriemma called his players’ “dummies” for fouling with the score well out of hand, drawing some criticism from national media. That led to a return volley from the coach, who lamented at the fact that “I don’t get to comment on all the dumbass stuff you people say.”
Auriemma wasn’t done ranting, though. A week later, the coach went off — unprompted — for six and a half minutes straight about the scrutiny his team faces.
“Since when do you have to apologize for winning a game? Why, because we’ve won so much that even winning is not enough? I’ll be honest with you, that’s bulls—t. It really is,” he said.
Today at practice, Geno Auriemma went off for six and a half minutes about how this year's team doesn't stack up to past teams – among other things: pic.twitter.com/txGFPdyLjN— Daniel Connolly (@DanielVConnolly) January 18, 2020
Baylor was also the last time we saw assistant coach Jasmine Lister, who left the team afterwards for what was initially said to be an illness before eventually being categorized as “personal reasons.” The Huskies replaced her on staff with former player and assistant Jamelle Elliot.
Despite coming in with rave reviews before the season, freshman Anna Makurat struggled for most of the first half. Before the team broke off for the holidays, Auriemma told her: “I don’t want the same person that’s leaving here coming back.” Makurat took that to heart and finally broke out against Tulsa, where she dropped 21 points and made 4-7 from three — including a play where she demanded the ball and immediately drained a triple.
UConn and Tennessee renewed the rivalry after 13 years in late January, where the Huskies shut down the Lady Vols for a 60-45 win. Aubrey Griffin terrorized Tennessee defensively so much so that it started seeing ghosts and began throwing passes into the stands without any pressure.
The next week, the US national team rolled into town for an exhibition with five former Huskies on the roster. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi spoke about making one final run at this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo while Auriemma explained what separates UConn from every other program in the country.
Team USA walked away with the win but the Huskies put up a pretty good fight against a vastly superior opponent. It also marked Breanna Stewart’s return to the hardwood after tearing her Achilles the previous April.
However, the game was overshadowed by the devastating news of the deaths of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi along with seven others in a helicopter crash. UConn left an empty seat on the bench with flowers and a No. 2 jersey in honor of Gigi while both teams honored Kobe on the court. A few games later, Auriemma wore Kobe’s jersey under his suit jacket on the sideline.
In early February came the long-awaited matchup with Oregon in Storrs. However, the anticipating ended up being better than the game itself. The Huskies were torched defensively and couldn’t close the gap late as the Ducks handed them their largest defeat ever at Gampel.
However, that loss also proved to be a turning point in the season for Nelson-Ododa.
“Ever since the Wednesday after the Oregon game, Liv has been completely different than at any time since she got here at Connecticut, in terms of what her practice habits are, how she’s approaching every practice, how she’s approaching every drill, how she’s going about her daily preparation to play, and it shows in the games,” Auriemma said.
One week on from the Oregon game, UConn faced the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks on the road. Things got off to a poor start for the Huskies, who scored just two points in the first quarter. The two sides held even over the next 28 minutes before South Carolina pulled away at the end and dropped UConn to 0-3 against the top three teams in the nation.
From there, the Huskies set out to turn things around by tournament time. Slowly, UConn stacked progress through each uneventful AAC game — securing the conference regular season title along the way — before routing of Cincinnati in the third-to-last game of the season.
Finally, after a long season of offensive struggles and tribulations, the light went on for the team against the Bearcats. It finally dawned on them that they needed to figure it out themselves because nobody else was coming to save the day.
After that point, UConn began to resemble its typical self. The high-scoring blowouts returned, Christyn Williams emerged out of a season-long funk, and the players finally seemed to be having fun on the court.
Once the regular season wrapped up, Walker was named the AAC Player of the Year while Auriemma picked up Coach of the Year honors.
The Huskies entered the AAC Tournament with as much confidence as it had all season and ripped through a trio of opponents to solidify a perfect 139-0 all-time record in the conference. Griffin broke out over the three games, started by a 16 point, 15 rebound effort in the opener and seemed poised to add a new dynamic to the team for the NCAA Tournament.
It wasn’t all roses, though. UConn lost Irwin for the season when she took a hard fall and fractured her elbow in the semifinals, an injury which required surgery the next day. What we didn’t know was that the season would end for everyone else the next night after the Huskies were crowned AAC Tournament champions for the seventh and final time, an imperfect yet somehow satisfying way to end the year.
From the uncertainty around Westbrook to the question marks at every position before the season, 2019-20 wasn’t a “normal” season for UConn. But the talk of the program needing to be saved or that this being a down year for the Huskies when they lost just three games to the undisputed three best teams (and didn’t come particularly close to dropping any others) was also overblown.
There would always be a feeling of “what if” in any season without an NCAA Tournament, but the coronavirus robbed us of seeing what this UConn team’s true potential was. The AAC Tournament seemed to be only the beginning for the the Huskies and if they faced Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina again, it would’ve been fun to see just how much UConn improved.
Unfortunately, the 2020 NCAA Tournament will never be played, only simulated with numbers or debated by analysts and fans.