The underdog Huskies? The underdog Huskies.
TAMPA — Please don’t try to tell a “UConn, the women’s basketball underdog” story. Straining hard for a team in its 12th-straight Final Four will send you to the hospital.
But on Thursday, the day before UConn’s national semifinal against Notre Dame, the Huskies sounded like a team with something to prove. The team with five total losses in the last six years, actually has real adversity to draw from and heartbreak to use as motivation.
Roll your eyes if you want, but you’re not the ones who have to be convinced. That’s on the players. They’re the ones who lost two national semifinal games in 2017 and 2018 in the most gut-wrenching way possible:
“It’s something that our first year, we were like, ‘we need to use this to make ourselves better,’ then we didn’t really take that to heart,” senior Napheesa Collier said. “We said it this year. You could see, I think, even from the summer, everyone just came in really focused, with a different mentality than we had the year before.”
There’s the classic “chip on the shoulder” attitude that comes with the territory, but just as importantly, the past two years have served as a way to separate this UConn team from the Breanna Stewart-led machine that rolled through four championships in a row, leaving otherwise great teams looking completely overmatched.
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Geno Auriemma has noticed that separation manifest itself in games and believes it has helped bring this group to where it is today. It could be easy to miss considering the Huskies have lost twice (the horror!) and played in multiple (gasp!) close games this year.
The past two years, if UConn found itself in a bind late, Auriemma says it did not have that single player — the Stewart — who could take control. Even worse, he thought the team was burdened by the fear of losing. The expectations that those Stewart-era teams set were so outlandish that the 2017 and 2018 Huskies may have been doomed from the start. They felt that.
“Why do you think we got down 17 to Notre Dame last year?” Auriemma asked. “Same thing with Mississippi State the year before. Because there was a part of us that didn’t think we were good enough.”
This year, UConn has had to dig a little to find the answers, but they’ve always emerged. In the Sweet 16 against UCLA, it was Crystal Dangerfield, who had a miserable first three quarters before scoring 11 in the fourth as the Huskies erased a late deficit. In the Elite Eight against Louisville, Katie Lou Samuelson was plagued by foul trouble and Megan Walker answered by hitting four threes in the first half.
“I think this team is different in the sense that we have so many different people that could step up when we need to,” Samuelson said.
That’s only increased the team’s confidence and comfort in big spots.
“I think there’s this sense coming out here this year, ‘What’s the big deal?’” Auriemma said. “We’ve been down that road already. We know what it’s like to lose. We know what it’s like to win.”
More importantly, UConn knows what it’s like to win against the Notre Dame team that it is going to face Friday night. The Huskies handled the Irish in South Bend, 89-71 in early December. Christyn Williams was the hero in that one. She went 11-16 from the field and scored 28 points.
Going into Friday, Auriemma knows that a third semifinal loss in three years is a real possibility. He’s OK with that, provided his team doesn’t fall victim to its own past once again.
“They’re going to have to beat our asses,” he said. “We’re not just going to lose because we’re afraid to lose.”
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