UConn sat in silence in the visitor’s locker room of Bud Walton Arena. The Huskies had just been torched for 90 points in a loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks, the most they’d given up in regulation since 2001. Even before the coaches came in, there was already a palpable sense of embarrassment among the players.
“We’re just all sitting there — not even defeated, just so embarrassed like ‘We just allowed that to happen,’” Evina Westbrook said. “It was just embarrassing for us as individuals and for us as a team.”
It wasn’t just that UConn had given up so many points. The Huskies knew exactly what Arkansas would do heading into the matchup and they still couldn’t do anything to stop it. There were constant defensive breakdowns and poor communication. UConn had no answer for Chelsea Dungee, who dropped 37 points on the night.
The Huskies didn’t just get beat. They were demoralized.
“It wasn’t that we lost,” Auriemma said. “It was the way we lost.”
They were a deeply flawed team at that point in the season — it was just hard to tell from the outside.
UConn was supposed to open the season with games against Mississippi State and Louisville in the first two weeks but both were canceled after the Huskies paused team activities for 10 days due to a positive COVID test. Then in early January, they were set to travel down to Texas for a battle with Baylor, only to have Kim Mulkey test positive for the virus just a few days prior, thus canceling the matchup.
That meant UConn only played Big East opponents aside from one meeting with UMass Lowell. In those games, the Huskies could hide their issues behind an overwhelming talent advantage and as they cruised to a 10-0 record.
But behind the scenes, they pushed Auriemma to the edge.
“There were moments in December and January where I didn’t want any part of this team,” he said. “So every day for me was just one frustration after another ... It didn’t matter what we were trying to teach, it wasn’t working. It didn’t matter what you would say, by tomorrow, it would be gone. It didn’t matter how much progress you made in three days, the fourth day, you’d have to start at the beginning. So that was a couple of months where every day was excruciating.
“I was drowning there for a long time. I’m not afraid to admit. I was drowning.”
With so many non-conference matchups canceled, UConn secured a game with Arkansas a little more than a week in advance. They couldn’t hide their deficiencies anymore. For 40 minutes, they were completely exposed by the Razorbacks.
So at that moment in the locker room, when things seemed grim in an already challenging season, the players chose to use it as a wake-up call to aim higher.
“We took it upon ourselves as a team like ‘Hey, this can’t happen anymore. We either gotta change or we’re going to continue to get embarrassed. I don’t know by everyone else but this isn’t a good feeling,’” Westbrook said. “So we put it together. We got our [stuff] together.”
That night in Fayetteville, UConn changed its collective attitude. They traveled to DePaul three days later, their first opportunity to prove they were a different team. That afternoon, Auriemma felt like the entire season hung in the balance.
“I truly believe that when we went from Arkansas to DePaul, that had we played as poorly against DePaul as we did against Arkansas and got blown out at DePaul or got beat at DePaul, I think this season would have won would have gone in a different direction,” he said.
The Huskies came out shaky with turnovers on two of their first three possessions and went down 15-8 early on but once they settled in, they quickly took over and ran away with a 100-67 victory in which three different players set a new career-high.
Once the Huskies took their first step in the right direction, progress became infectious.
“Each and every practice we started to get better and I think once we started to see ourselves change like [...] we started figuring it out and then once it was clicking like, ‘Okay, this what we’re supposed to do,’ now we just have to make it happen every time,” Westbrook said.
As the calendar turned to February, UConn entered the busiest part of its schedule. The Huskies played eight times that month and embarked on a five-game road trip — the program’s longest in nearly 40 years.
With each passing game, UConn kept improving, especially on the defensive end. On Feb. 10, the Huskies beat Seton Hall 70-49, kicking off a streak of five straight games where they held an opponent under 50 points.
“Once we were playing more games, we were playing games non-stop, we just started clicking and clicking, (at) St John’s it was just clicking,” Westbrook said. “I think all the road games that we had back-to-back-to-back was a blessing in disguise. We were hit with a lot of adversity and going from hotel to hotel, we didn’t really see our own beds back in Connecticut.”
That turnaround also lifted a tremendous weight off Auriemma’s shoulders. He no longer dreaded the “excruciating” experiences of those early practices.
“Ever since the Arkansas game, I feel like I’ve been reborn,” Auriemma said.
Now, UConn prepares to play Arizona in the Final Four on Friday night — something that may have never been possible without that painful night in Arkansas two months ago. If not for that embarrassing silence in the locker room, the Huskies might have never figured things out.
“It was something that we had to work through as a team. The coaches aren’t out on the court with us,” Westbrook said. “It’s literally just us so, at the end of the day, we figured it out and we’re still continuing to get better and figuring it out.”
Even though this will be Auriemma’s 21st Final Four as a head coach, very few have been as rewarding as this one.
“Maybe because of that, what’s happened since the Arkansas game, we’ve kind of all come together now on the court and off the court, that having gone to those depths and come out of it, I think that’s where all the fun and all the joy and all the life comes from,” Auriemma said.