In case you haven’t heard, the UConn Huskies don’t lose often. They’re undefeated so far this season. They’ve dropped just two games in their last 140 and most of them were part of a record 111-game win streak and at least a few national championships.
But in Storrs, seasons are measured by what happens in the final game of the season and the Huskies fell short of a fifth straight title. They’re rearing to get back to the top this year, but despite many peoples’ assumptions, they’re beatable. It’ll take a stronger effort than it did last year, but it’s possible.
“I’ve always thought that you can go to a Final Four and sleep easy if you know that there’s nothing that could happen that can derail your team,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “And believe me, I’ve coached a bunch of those teams that as long as we showed up on time, we were going to win because we were just that good.”
Auriemma doesn’t feel the same way about his current team, just like he didn’t feel that way about last year’s squad who ended up getting upset by Mississippi State in the national semifinal.
“What always worried me last year is we were able to overcome a lot of things and a couple big things that if we were ever in a situation that we faced that and didn’t make shots, that what happened (against Mississippi State), would happen. And it came to pass,” he said. “A big, physical, strong team that made shots and made it difficult for us, and we missed shots.”
The question now is can a team knock off UConn for the second consecutive year? It won’t be easy, but here’s how it could happen.
Lingering Injuries and/or Foul Trouble
The easiest way the Huskies go down is if nagging injuries sustained to key players during the season rear their head. Gabby Williams has dealt with migraines and a hip injury all season, the former of which held her out of the end of the first Notre Dame meeting while the second forced her to miss a game in the American Conference Tournament.
The senior is a critical part of both UConn’s offense and defense, leading the team in assists while also being the team’s top interior defender. Losing Williams would be a massive blow that would certainly close the gap between UConn and the other teams.
Katie Lou Samuelson has also dealt with ankle/foot issues that forced her to miss five games at the start of the season. The junior is UConn’s best offensive player and if she were to re-aggravate the ankle, the Huskies’ attack would look dramatically different.
While Samuelson and Williams are certainly critical to this team, Crystal Dangerfield is the player UConn truly cannot afford to lose. The sophomore is the Huskies’ only quality option at point guard but has been dealing with shin splints all season which has prevented her from practicing for most of the season.
If she were to go down, Kia Nurse would likely have to take floor general duties, forcing Auriemma to downgrade at two positions. It would also force freshman Megan Walker into a bigger role than Auriemma is comfortable with and would also leave the turnover-prone Molly Bent as the top guard option off the bench.
UConn could probably weather the storm if they lose one player — after all, they beat Notre Dame without Williams and a recovering Samuelson. But if disaster strikes and the Huskies lose multiple key players, it may be too much for them to overcome. The same could be said for any of these players getting into foul trouble.
Battle of the Bigs
As great of a team as UConn is, they aren’t the strongest team down low. The Huskies’ top bigs are 5-foot-11 Gabby Williams and 6-foot-1 Napheesa Collier. Their first player off the bench, Azura Stevens, is 6-foot-6 but still unpolished and not exactly a low-post mauler— Auriemma once jokingly referred to her as a “two-guard.”
UConn doesn’t have the size or strength down low that the other Final Four teams do, but they make up for it with swarming defense while denying passing lanes.
South Carolina had a lot of success in the paint during the Elite Eight with A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings combining for 42 points. But the Gamecocks hit just 1-of-7 from three and failed to generate much offense beyond those two. They struggled to protect the ball as well, giving the Huskies easy baskets off turnovers.
If a team locks down the paint while controlling the offensive boards, they would force UConn to look to their three-point shooting. While the Huskies are strong from beyond the arc, one bad shooting night could do them in if they can’t get inside.
Slow it down and limit turnovers
In the Huskies’ first NCAA Tournament game, Saint Francis’ game plan was to play as fast as possible while hoisting up as many threes as they could. It went poorly. Very poorly.
The next game, Quinnipiac did the opposite. They slowed the game down but still ran their offense while rarely turning the ball over. They even had the chance to get within five in the second quarter, but couldn’t convert the triple. Ultimately, the Bobcats didn’t have the firepower to stay with UConn as they shot just 30 percent and hit four three-pointers all game.
Duke tried the same strategy in the Sweet Sixteen but couldn’t stop the Huskies from going off on a run. If a team decides to slow it down and try to beat UConn that way, they need to take advantage of every mistake the Huskies make while limiting their own. They also can’t let UConn rip off a big run otherwise it becomes very difficult to chip away at the deficit with a sluggish pace.
UConn is the heavy favorite to win, but that doesn’t mean they’re untouchable. This year’s version of the Huskies is decidedly better than the last with Azura Stevens, Megan Walker and an improved Crystal Dangerfield in the mix.
There’s a reason the Huskies’ senior class has lost just two games. One of the other three teams in the Final Four would need to play a near-perfect game combined with an off-night from UConn to do so, and even that may not be enough. But we know it’s possible, and that’s why we’ll be watching tonight and Sunday.