UConn’s 111-game winning streak was captivating for a few reasons. The first is obvious: Winning 111 times in a row is absurd. The amount of talent, cohesion and discipline it takes to sustain that level of success is extraordinary.
But the looming inevitability of a loss was also a spellbinding part of the streak. The longer the win streak lasted, the more the eventual loss would surprise and sting. We didn’t know if it would happen in 2017, 2018 or 2022. But we knew that, when it did, the sports world would stop.
On March 31, Mississippi State upset Connecticut 66-64 in overtime of a semifinal game in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. The Huskies had beaten the Bulldogs by 60 points — yes, 60 — in the Sweet 16 a year prior. UConn hadn’t lost since the fall of 2014.
Normally, what Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer said after the game would be hyperbolic. Not this time.
“What an unbelievable, gutsy performance that no one in the country thought could happen,” Schaefer said. “And that’s okay. But we knew it could happen. We beat the greatest team, with the greatest streak in the history of sports. We’re very proud of that.”
It was certainly something for Mississippi State to crow about. UConn, on the other hand, was forced suddenly to cope with something that few with the program knew anything about. Not just a loss, which was foreign enough. But an immediate, crushing defeat in a huge game.
So, what now?
“I don’t think it’s something you just get over,” senior forward Gabby Williams tells NCAA.com. “But I think that’s a good thing. We weren’t OK with it. We weren’t happy with it. So I think we need to remember it, and it needs to stick with us. But we’ll channel that energy positively towards this year.”
The women on the UConn team aren’t robots. Where one armchair psychologist might tell the Huskies to put the loss behind them, another might tell them to use it as fuel. Whatever. Everyone operates differently.
For what it’s worth, all the players know what they don’t want.
“We don’t ever want to feel like that again,” Williams says.
Look at what happened in the last two men’s Final Fours. In 2016, North Carolina lost to Villanova in perhaps the most excruciating way possible.
In 2017, the Tar Heels won the title. And you better believe they used the Villanova loss as motivation.
Former UNC star Justin Jackson, now with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, made it known that he and several Tar Heels had a group chat titled “Redemption” during the title run.
“In the back of our minds, last year is always there,” Jackson said during the 2017 tournament. “So I felt like that might be a little fitting, especially for the guys who were coming back.”
That mindset worked for UNC. Time will tell if it does for UConn.
The narrative we use to discuss these kind of stories is fascinating. Let’s strip away the 111-game win streak. In 2016-17, UConn finished 36-1 and made the Final Four. It went undefeated in its conference. The Huskies outscored their opponents by an average of 32.2 points per game. By every metric, they were awesome. And yet, they’ll be remembered as the team that didn’t win.
Here’s a similar example on the men’s side. In 2014-15, Kentucky finished 38-1 and lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four. It outscored opponents by an average of 20.1 points. The Wildcats went undefeated in the SEC. Sure, people will remember Kentucky’s loss to Wisconsin. But most of all, they’ll remember Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie-Cauley Stein, Trey Lyles, the Harrisons. All on the same team. The loss to Wisconsin won’t be the first thing that comes to mind when people think about that Kentucky team.
UConn fans will never forget the loss to Mississippi State last March. If anything, though, that speaks to how high a standard UConn is held to.
“We don’t take [losing]lightly,” Williams says. “And I think that’s what makes this program so great. It’s because we take winning so seriously. It separates us. The expectations are high, but we don’t shy away from them.”
If Connecticut ever was going to be vulnerable, it was last year. Coach Geno Auriemma usually has at least one senior star, if not multiple. Last season, sophomores and juniors led the team in scoring. The Huskies lost Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson. They were the first and second overall picks, respectively, in the WNBA Draft.
The Huskies aren’t making excuses for the loss. But they’re confident heading into the new season, as you’d expect, and they have a great chance to win the title. The Huskies’ four best players — Williams, Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Kia Nurse — all return. The quartet combined to average 69.6 points a game. They’re all upperclassmen now.
And, remember, they’ve won 111 of their last 112 games.
“Nothing’s going to be new to us,” Williams says. “Compared to last year, that’s a big advantage.”
We haven’t seen UConn try to come back from a loss in three years, but we know they’ve done it and done it well. Stanford beat UConn to end the school’s last big streak, a 47-gamer, in November of ’14. The Huskes started thieir 111-game run in the next game.
They’ll try to begin a new string on Nov. 12 in Columbus, Ohio, in their regular-season opener. The opponent: Stanford.