UConn ready for historic march to four straight national titles
It's March, or what is known in Connecticut as the moment the UConn women's basketball team comes in like a lion.
“I feel a lot different when this time of year comes around because every year you have seniors and every year you have a team that they're coming down to the time where they're not going to be together anymore,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said recently, asked to frame the significance of March.
“It's always a time to look back and appreciate, which I don't ever do during the season. You don't find me in the middle of January going, 'Man, you know, I'm really going to miss Stewie (UConn All-American Breanna Stewart); she's so great.' Then when March comes around, you really see things in a different light and that's why you want them to play their best basketball in March.”
UConn, the top-ranked team in the nation, is 32-0 entering the NCAA tournament, just having completed what was the Huskies' eighth unbeaten regular season in history and sweeping through the American Athletic Conference tournament for the third straight season.
UConn has a 69-game winning streak, the third-longest in NCAA history. The first two, streaks of 90 and 70 games, also belong to the Huskies.
They have won 30 or more games in 11 straight seasons, a fact that made Auriemma laugh to himself when it was brought to his attention during this year's league tournament.
UConn has won 10 national championships, unmatched in the history of the game, including the last three in a row.
Now the Huskies attempt what would be their newest historical showpiece: a fourth consecutive national championship. No women's basketball team has ever accomplished that feat.
Tennessee was the first to win three straight in 1996-98. UConn first went back-to-back-to-back in 2002-04 behind the want-to and the swagger of program great Diana Taurasi, the two-time national player of the year. The Huskies won two more in 2009-10, the Maya Moore era, before stringing together the last three (2013, 2014, 2015) with the arrival of Stewart, the easygoing 6-foot-4 forward from North Syracuse, N.Y.
Stewart, with 2,554 points (second all-time at UConn behind Moore), 1,113 rebounds (fourth) and 395 blocks (second, just one from tying Rebecca Lobo for first), is now positioned to help the Huskies achieve yet another first in what has been a continual women's basketball master class.
“They've gotten to a point where there's nothing left for them to do that they haven't already done and then they do,” said Lobo, a member of UConn's first national championship team and a Women's Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “They had the 88-game winning streak (2008-10, to break the UCLA men's team's record win streak for all of college basketball). Now this.
“Once again, they're doing something nobody else has and nobody else will unless maybe by them.”
In terms of appreciating the Huskies' transcendence, Lobo said that's best left to outsiders, not the players themselves while they're in the midst of rewriting history.
“It gets somewhat overwhelming at times,” Auriemma said, addressing the latest ascension to the 30-win plateau and historical perspective in general. “You don't really sit back and look at it that way. It's brought to you oftentimes and you're forced to look at it. While you're doing it, it doesn't feel like what you're doing is so significant.”
“Our first non-30-win season will put it in perspective for everyone that we've been living in a fantasy world,” UConn associate coach Chris Dailey said. “We've changed what the benchmark for our program was. When we first started and got to 20, that was a big deal.”
Dailey echoes Auriemma's declaration that his team may make things look easy at times, but it's not.
“A lot of times the coaches and the players both leave with headaches … for different reasons,” Dailey said. “People need to realize how hard it is to do what these kids are doing. They're growing up in front of you. You go to college to grow up, you go to college to figure things out. They have 10,000 people or more critiquing everything they do.”
Stewart, all but certain to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft, said as the AAC tournament came to a close last week that she was struck by looking at the date on her phone and having it say “March 7.”
“February was just here,” Stewart said. “It's definitely coming to an end and it's coming very quickly. I'm just trying to enjoy it. Obviously it's going to be sad. Nothing is going to be like being here at Connecticut, being with these guys, these coaches, these players. The best way to remember everything is to enjoy it and go out the way we want to go out.”
It's something of which Auriemma has been cognizant throughout his career, oftentimes being overcome with emotion after a championship game victory, knowing that his seniors ended things the “right way.”
“No matter what we did in September, October, November, December, January, February, the only thing people are going to remember is what March was like,” Auriemma said. “I want March, especially, this year, to be the best month of Stewie's life.”