COLUMBUS – Heartbreak. Two seasons in a row.
Overtime losses. Two seasons in a row.
Final Four failures. Two seasons in a row.
The UConn women’s basketball team lost to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 91-89 in overtime Friday night in the Final Four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, leaving them out of the national championship game for the second consecutive year after winning four straight titles from 2013-16.
UConn (36-1) is by no means used to losing, but the Huskies might be getting old of experiencing the worst kind of heartbreak in the national semifinal two years running, in games which mirrored each other quite a bit.
“Some things just don't need explanations, you know. You really can't describe what goes into what goes into getting here and trying to win a championship. It's very, very difficult,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “For a long, long time, we made it look like it was easy, but it's very, very difficult, as it's played out the last two years.”
One shot made the difference last year when Mississippi State’s Morgan William hit a jumper from the elbow over Gabby Williams in overtime to send the Bulldogs to the title game. One shot made the difference again this year as Notre Dame star Arike Ogunbowale drained a stepback corner 2-pointer over Napheesa Collier to send the Fighting Irish to the title game against those same Bulldogs.
“I would say it’s hard to believe (this has happened two years in a row),” Auriemma said. “Obviously much harder than the first time… Just like last year, it came down to one play, one shot. And they made it.”
The similarities between the semifinal from last year and this year go beyond just an overtime buzzer beater to down the Huskies. UConn struggled early on in both games, falling behind by at least nine in the first quarter of both losses, before coming back to life over the next two quarters.
UConn’s climb back into the contest came in the third quarter in 2017, but came in the second quarter Friday night against the Irish, even giving the Huskies an 11-point lead at one point. However, just like the Bulldogs last season, Notre Dame kept at it and kept themselves in the game, even retaking control until the big moment came in overtime when a shot needed to be made. Senior guard Kia Nurse said the game was more or less about trading punches and seeing who could get the last hit.
“I think it was one of those games where, obviously, it was just a grind back and forth the entire game, and it was just a battle,” Nurse said. “I think, like Coach said, there were so many times they could have put us away, and we clawed and clawed and clawed our way back into it and made big play after big play.”
Auriemma has preached time and time again that UConn is not invincible and that this perfection is not as easy to attain as people think. He was proven correct for the second year in a row, much to his dismay, and repeated his earlier sentiment in the post-game presser.
“I’ve been saying for the last 15, 20 years that winning national championships is hard, and I don’t think anybody would believe me because it just seemed so routine for a while,” Auriemma said. “These last two years I think is a big reminder that this is hard to do.”
UConn fans are quite privileged to have experienced so much success over the years under Geno Auriemma, but for the second year in a row, many will look back at this season as a failure defined by one game. Failure despite two consecutive 36-win seasons, going 72-2 in that span.
“Unfortunately, the way the game is set up, one weekend in March gets to decide your whole season if you're Connecticut,” Auriemma said. “That’s where we live. That’s the world that we live in. That’s the world that we created... To think that you're gonna win it every year and to think that every bounce is gonna go your way and every shot is gonna drop, that's just totally unrealistic.”
It’s the world that comes with being the team that has a huge target on its back, the pressure of being UConn.
The Huskies now go home for the second season in a row, heartbroken, with nothing to look forward to on the day of the national championship that could’ve been theirs.