Dallas, TX -- On Nov. 17, 2014, something changed for head coach Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut women’s basketball team.
UConn’s 111-game winning streak started that day after an overtime loss to Stanford.
“What games like today illustrate is how damn hard it is to go undefeated,” Auriemma told the Associated Press after that game, not knowing his Huskies would set and surpass the longest streak in NCAA basketball history.
UConn’s 111-game winning streak ended Friday in an overtime loss to Mississippi State.
It took 867 days for someone to prove the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is still mortal.
The first time the Huskies knew they were in trouble in Friday night’s second semi-final matchup was when Mississippi State scored 14-straight points to lead UConn 29-13.
“They started the game obviously with an intensity,” said Kia Nurse, UConn senior forward, ”and they came out and made a push fast. I think for us personally, we had to get back to UConn basketball.”
It wouldn’t be until the fourth quarter that the Huskies would get back to “UConn basketball,” rallying from a 16-point deficit—the team’s biggest during their entire NCAA record streak—to take the lead 59-56. Both teams were tied at 60 when Mississippi State guard Morgan William’s game-winning shot was blocked by Gabby Williams, sending the game into overtime.
Going into overtime, though, wasn’t UConn’s first mistake. Their first mistake was not starting off hungry in a must-win, potential revenge game against a revamped Mississippi State team out for blood.
From tip-off to William’s OT buzzer beater, it was clear that UConn, like most of the country, didn’t think Hail State could pull off the upset of the decade. FiveThirtyEight even gave the Bulldogs a 13 percent chance of winning.
“If all you’re doing is evaluating what you see on TV, and you don’t really know what’s inside somebody’s breastplate, you better be careful about evaluating them,” said Vic Schaefer, Mississippi State head coach. “They have tremendous heart. They also have a little pride.”
“We had our pride stepped on last year by another great team, just like that one today.”
Most teams see the challenge of facing UConn and the talent and versatility of each 5-woman rotation Auriemma concocts. Maybe this is wherein laying the problem and the fuel for 111 consecutive wins: teams tried to take the Huskies head-on and aimed to stop their shooters.
Mississippi State merely matched them offensively, and tied the loose ends on the little things, giving a comfortable UConn team a glimpse back at their last loss two years—and sending them into a panic to avoid that situation altogether.
The Bulldogs tallied 37 total rebounds on the night as opposed to the Huskies 31. But where it really counted is in offensive boards, as Mississippi State nabbed 14—8 more than UConn and good for 18-second chance points.
Hail State wrapped up the night with 28 points in the paint, 12 points off turnovers, 7 points off of fast breaks and 12 points off the bench. Their production only seemed to falter a bit once UConn began to creep back in.
Mississippi State felt the pressure when UConn rallied back with a 12-0 run in the first half. They felt the pressure when Gabby Williams began to take matters into her own hands. And they felt the pressure when Katie Lou Samuelson started getting hot from beyond the arc again.
But not once did it seem like Vic Schaefer’s team panic.
For months now, Auriemma has been saying his team plays with a maturity that transcends them. But when UConn needed that maturity most, in a pressure situation with a chance at a fifth consecutive national title on the line, they broke.
Samuelson shot 50 percent in three-pointers (a down night for her). Nurse didn’t even get on the board until the second half. And Napheesa Collier ended the night with a mere 11 points.
And now, the Huskies are 0-4 in overtime games in the tournament.
To me, the question is not could UConn have played better or have pulled off the win had things been different. In fact, that’s rhetorical.
Mississippi State played this game with the voracity and pure focus that only a team still feeling the sting of being beaten by 60 in last year’s Sweet 16 could. The Bulldogs won this game outright.
The question is, now, how does this UConn team begin again and start a new streak from scratch after watching the past two years of unprecedented success crumble before this year’s ultimate validation.