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Making the Final Four is hard (and it sure was Monday night)

Picture it: Some guy Monday night in Idaho, whose only frame of reference to women's basketball is UConn, swallowing his Skoal upon hearing Geno Auriemma say, "I can't believe it" to a national television audience.

Auriemma told Holly Rowe of ESPN — after a truly sensational UConn 69, Baylor 67 — that he pretty much couldn't believe the Huskies made the Final Four.

"Hoss," the guy in Idaho might have wondered aloud to Auriemma from his living room, "don't you, like, make the Final Four every year? What's so hard to believe?"

And this is the great irony. We here in Connecticut really do know more about women's basketball than any other outpost in the country ... and yet we still don't get it. Perhaps intellectually, we comprehend the gravity of the Final Four's degree of difficulty. But practically, well, how hard can it be after you've done it 13 straight times?

In Connecticut, the UConn women in the Final Four is part of the narrative, much like bad government and too much road construction. That the difficulty of this needs to be explained only underscores the fantasyland Auriemma has created here for the last 36 years.

"This was harder than winning some of the national championships we've won," Auriemma said via Zoom Monday night from the Alamodome. "Without question. Winning this game, after getting down 10, is an amazing accomplishment by these young kids."

Ah yes. The "young kids" thing. Who really ever views UConn as a bunch of "young kids?' Please. UConn is always the favorite. We watch them inhale conference opponents all year and think it's going to happen again in March to everybody else by osmosis. Au contraire.

Baylor, a two-seed in name only because of a comatose selection committee, was older, bigger and stronger, not necessarily in that order.

"If you've never been in this situation, you don't know how you're going to react," Auriemma said. "These kids have never been in this situation. Evina (Westbrook) has not. Christyn (Williams) and Olivia (Nelson-Ododa) have been on teams that have been in this situation, but they haven't been (themselves). Then you have all the other kids.

"When it started to get away from us, even one of their teammates (Anna Makurat) said 'you guys need to change the look on your face.' I basically said, 'If this is how it's going to be, let's just go home and say 'we tried.' Or let's show some toughness. Stop worry about 'oh my God we might lose."

As the great Jimmy Dugan, in "A League Of Their Own," said: "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard ... is what makes it great."

How hard was it?

UConn needed a freak injury to Baylor guard DiDi Richards, who had been chasing Paige Bueckers to everywhere but the restroom all game. Richards suffered a non-contact injury to her left hamstring, rendering her useless the rest of the game. If Richards doesn't get hurt, UConn's not remembering the Alamodome fondly.

Then there was the cause celebre at the end of the game. Aaliyah Edwards could certainly have been called for a foul on DiJonai Carrington in the closing seconds, which would have resulted in two free throws with Baylor down one. Was it a foul? Yes. UConn got lucky. But then, this was neither the first nor the last time women's basketball officiating has caused the viewing public a conniption.

Even LeBron James weighed in, tweeting that it was a foul. Glad he was watching. But then as Auriemma cracked, it's doubtful LeBron ever won a game on a bad call, right?

The overarching point here is that despite UConn's mastery of the women's game for 30 years now, magic wands and pixie dust don't beat Baylor.

"Baylor is a really, tough, physical strong team," Bueckers said. "A really up and down, high anxiety game."

Indeed. Just like the last two high leverage NCAA Tournament games the Huskies were involved in before this season. And they lost them both. At the buzzer. One to Mississippi State. One to Notre Dame.

Lest we forget this is college basketball, where the dramatis personae change. Kids leave. Kids graduate. This isn't like the pros, where, for example, the Bird Celtics and the Magic Lakers pretty well kept the same players for a number of years.

This is a new team for Auriemma. Ten of them had never been to the Final Four. They got there by a gnat's eyelash Monday night. Someone got hurt. A ref swallowed the whistle. Not so easy. But onward they go.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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