During UConn’s Elite Eight matchup against the NC State Wolfpack, ESPN aired a brief segment in which Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma called the 2021-22 NCAA season “the hardest, most trying, most emotionally and physically exhausting season” that he had ever experienced.
On Friday, UConn advanced to the 2022 NCAA Championship game with a 63-58 Final Four victory over Stanford, so Auriemma can’t be too displeased with how things have turned out.
Last night was EVERYTHING pic.twitter.com/pfA3XmP5G5— UConn Women’s Basketball (@UConnWBB) April 2, 2022
But for a program that has set a near-impossibly high standard for itself — the Huskies have reached the Final Four 22 times and won 11 national championships — UConn’s current campaign has certainly had its fair share of challenges. An early-season knee injury to star guard and 2021 AP Player of the Year Paige Bueckers, who ended up missing nearly three months of action and has been noticeably limited athletically since returning, has garnered the most discussion, but it was the Huskies’ descent into mediocrity against ranked competition and their grind to reestablish their identity of dominance that has defined their season to date.
A humbling 73-57 defeat at the hands of South Carolina in the Bahamas. A 57-44 slog against a depleted Georgia Tech team in which UConn shot 31 percent from the field. A 72-69 home loss to Villanova that was UConn’s first conference defeat since 2013. Each letdown was characterized by a surprising lack of offensive precision and attention to detail, and while its 25-5 record was, of course, still impressive, the aura of invincibility surrounding the program had faded.
With perfection a goal but no longer an expectation, UConn entered the NCAA Tournament in a position it’s rarely been in since the Big East conference realignment: a team that had to answer some big questions if it was to go all the way. Bueckers was back in the fold, but Auriemma would have to think twice before leaning on her too heavily.
So the Huskies went back to basics. UConn played out of its defense early in the tournament, holding Mercer to 38 points in the opening round and UCF to 47 days later. Save for the Huskies’ double-overtime thriller against NC State, they’ve held each of their NCAA Tournament opponents under 60 points; most recently, UConn suffocated a Stanford offense that Her Hoop Stats rated as the fifth-best in the nation, dodging the Cardinal’s usual barrage of 3-pointers while taking away the sharp basket cuts Tara VanDerveer’s team is known for.
UConn now finds itself back in the NCAA Championship game — though as an underdog, with the FanDuel sportsbook lining its opponent, the South Carolina Gamecocks, as 3.5 point favorites. South Carolina’s regular-season drubbing of UConn is assuredly still fresh in everyone’s memories, and with center Dorka Juhasz recently suffering a fractured wrist, the Huskies will be thin in the frontcourt against double-double machine and reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston. They’ll need guards Bueckers, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook to make smart decisions and have efficient shooting performances, lest they fall victim to the Gamecocks’ size and athleticism as Louisville did on Friday. A UConn victory is far from assured, unlike in the past.
Still, however the title game ends — either with UConn’s 12th national championship or its first runner-up finish — the Huskies will have the 2021-22 season to look back upon as a source of inspiration for the future. The rest of the nation has caught up to UConn, but at the very least, the Huskies have proven that when hit with adversity, they are capable of hitting right back.