Friday night, it happened again.
Again, the UConn women’s basketball team saw a perfect season end with an unexpected loss in the national semifinal, delivered in the worst way: watching a game-winning shot drop through your own net.
No, Notre Dame wasn’t the unlikely victor that last year’s Mississippi State was, but the feelings hurt all the same. Reports coming out of Columbus Friday night talked of a UConn locker room that was broken and stunned.
It may not seem that way from the outside. I went home this weekend for Easter and had relatives apologize for UConn’s loss, but always with a qualifier. I don’t feel bad, they said. The team wins every other damn game, they said.
They do win every game, it seems. During the first half of the regular season, Geno Auriemma lines up a murderer’s row of top-ranked opponents to give his team a series of Final Four-like tests, and they usually pass with flying colors.
Most notably this season, besides an 83-58 road beatdown of South Carolina that served as a prelude to similar events in the Elite Eight: an 80-71 win over Notre Dame at the XL Center on Dec. 3.
But it’s all about the rings today.
“That’s the world we live in,” Auriemma said after Friday night’s loss. “That’s the world we created. We look around [at 72-2] and have nothing to show for it.”
Success in American sports is defined by championships, like it or not. In many fans’ eyes, LeBron James will never sniff Michael Jordan’s No. 1 spot until he gets closer in the ring department. You can’t make it through a Dan Marino conversation without mentioning the elephant in the room.
In the world of NCAA basketball, where a single-elimination gauntlet of six games decides the winner of the season, the margin for error is even thinner. Take a day off during a playoff series in the NBA, NHL or MLB, and you can make up for it two nights later. (The NFL is obviously one-and-done, but football is an inherently less variant sport than basketball.)
Play the game between No. 1 Virginia and No. 16 UMBC 1000 times, and how many times does UMBC win? Twice? Throw in the fact that they won by 20, and the odds become even thinner.
They deserve the credit and Virginia the blame, but those 40 minutes don’t change the fact that Virginia was (at worst) the second-best team for the entirety of the season. They rolled a dice round one with the odds stacked heavily in their favor and lost, and are viewed a failure for it.
Obviously, UConn didn’t have the same odds Friday night. But all the winning and all the success pile up to create a similar effect. As for more recent evidence, wins by 88 points in the round of 64 and 29 points in the Elite Eight will certainly help build a narrative of invincibility.
So what happened? Entering as the favorite, UConn again lost a tightly-contested game to a good team, because the bounces didn’t quite go their way. Play a series and maybe the result is different, but they don’t play series in NCAA basketball. Notre Dame is bringing the trophy back to Indiana, because they had the best showing this March (and April 1).
“Hats off to UConn – they’re a great team, but we’re better,” Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey said after beating the Huskies Friday night.
With all due respect to Mabrey, who delivered multiple fun quotables this weekend, I disagree. UConn is better. Notre Dame was better Friday night, and better than Mississippi State Sunday night, by the slimmest of margins. That doesn’t change the fact that they are deserving victors.
As for UConn, they go home again without a trophy. Another incredibly successful season for the most dominant program in collegiate sports, but no trophy. More cries that UConn is ruining a sport that just held a Final Four with two game-winning buzzer beaters and zero UConn wins, but no trophy.
Should that be the narrative? No, but it is. They’ll get ‘em next year.