I turned on the UCONN and Mississippi State women’s Final Four game thinking I would kill ten minutes watching UCONN jump to an insurmountable lead on route to another blowout victory. Instead, I watched a full game and overtime period that ended as one of the most stunning upsets in history. It ended the lady Huskies’ 111 game winning streak and quest for a fifth consecutive National Championship. Of course, the bulk of the streak was anchored by Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck. The three Huskie stars went 1, 2, and 3 in the past WNBA draft. Junior star Gabby Williams remained and lead the current year’s squad but it was not nearly as dominant as it was with the other three stars despite the undefeated 36-0 record heading into Friday Night’s Final Four game. On the other hand, Mississippi State deserves a lot of credit after losing to UCONN by 60 points in last year’s tournament. It was not the same UCONN team because Stewart and Tuck were in the stands as spectators rather than on the floor. Nevertheless, Mississippi State needed to improve itself and exude mental toughness and determination to completely close a 60 point gap. At a high level, the outcome of the game was determined by a UCONN team that was not as good as it has been and not playing well on Friday night in addition to an improved, gritty Mississippi State team that presented some matchup issues and executed a smart game plan. Even then, it took a buzzer beater at the end of overtime to eliminate UCONN. It was one of the great finishes in NCAA history.
Early in the game, it was clear that Mississippi State presented some matchup issues for UCONN. First, it is a great defensive team that was actually capable of slowing down the high powered UCONN offense. In addition, it wisely slowly brought up the ball and used up the shot clock before its players initiated the shot clock. Upsets generally occur when the underdog slows down the pace and lowers the score because you can only contain a great team for so many possessions. In addition, Bulldogs feature a 6’7” Teaira McCowan in the middle who dwarfed the smaller Huskie players. When she got position and caught the basketball, she seemed to score every time. Of course, she is also a factor on the boards. Nevertheless, it was a team effort on the offensive rebounds. They just seemed to have much more energy than the Huskies early. In total, they grabbed 14 offensive rebounds. Moreover, their stingy defense and sloppy passing from the Huskies resulted in 17 UCONN turnovers. The slower pace, offensive rebounds, and UCONN turnovers limited the Huskies to 46 shots while the Bulldogs attempted 67 field goals. The Bulldogs only shot 37.3% from the field overall and 27.3% from the three point line. Obviously, the 21 extra shots from the field were the decisive factor in the game. In addition, the Bulldogs have a couple of gritty players in Victoria Vivians and the 5’5” Morgan William. Vivians only shoots 37.5% from the field and 28.3% from three pointers. Nevertheless, she is not afraid to miss and shoots the most shots for Mississippi State. In terms of Morgan William, she is a gutty and tough player despite her modest stature. In the previous game, she scored a career high 41 points to beat Baylor. It was an amazing story because it was the three year anniversary of the death of her father. In my opinion, the determination and will to win from these two players were another critical factor in the victory. The two ladies were 6/18 and 6/17 from the field but they were incredibly resilient and kept on going at the mighty Huskies. They were not afraid to fail and competed till the end. For William, she may already be the story of the tournament. After her 41 point performance, she hit the game winner against UCONN on the best player on the Huskies and a great defender, Gabby Williams.
This season’s UCONN Huskies did not have the talent and did not dominate like the previous four teams. Nevertheless, they were burdened by the same expectations set by the accomplishments of their predecessors. Of course, this year’s team was still undefeated going into Friday night’s game and deserved to be the overwhelming favorites to win the tournament. At the beginning of the game, the Huskies did not match the intensity of their opponent. In the second half, they came out firing. Once they took the lead, I expected them to blow right by the Bulldogs and pull away. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs kept fighting and competing. In my opinion, UCONN still had the better team but the Bulldogs were definitely good enough to keep it close and win with their defense and matchup advantages. Did the pressure of living up to the legacy of the UCONN program and keeping the streak alive get to the lady Huskies? Without a doubt, it must have affected them at some level. It is impossible to tune out those expectations. It could have caused some of the players to tighten up instead of staying loose on some plays. Nevertheless, I do not believe it was an overwhelming factor. The Huskies still made plenty of plays to position themselves to win, which included a clutch block by Gabby Williams on Morgan William at the end of regulation and big shots. The Huskies just came up a couple of plays short of winning. The end of overtime was a little odd and epic. Down by 2 points, UCONN called time out. It allowed the officials a moment to review an earlier play when Katie Samuelson was hit in the throat and fell to the floor. I have never seen a play two possessions ago be reviewed for a flagrant foul. I do not like it but it is apparently the college rules and the call had to be made based on the rules. Samuelson calmly hit both free throws to tie the game and give a chance for the Huskies to shoot a last second shot to win the game and give no time for the Bulldogs to tie or win it. Inexplicably, senior guard Soniya Chong drove to the basket with 18 seconds left and lost the ball. It was the only moment in the game I felt the weight of impossible expectations manifested in a clear, tangible manner for the Huskies. It made no sense. They needed to milk the clock and leave no time for the Bulldogs to win it. In addition, I would have made sure Gabby Williams got the ball at the top of the free throw line with 5 seconds left. She is their best player and dominated the game, especially at the midrange. In my opinion, Williams would have created a wide open jump shot at the free throw line or drove to the basket for the game winner. Instead, Mississippi State got the ball back and Morgan William hit an epic buzzer beater that will be replayed forever. Nevertheless, I will not put too much blame on Chong. She is a student athlete and not a professional athlete. She should hold her head up high and learn and grow from the failure. Besides, she is still a three time NCAA champion.
How do I reflect and rank UCONN’s 111 game winning streak? We have not seen anything like it since John Wooden’s run of dominance with UCLA to 10 National Championships and total domination of the sport that included an 88 game winning streak. At the time, UCLA was light years against the rest of the competition. They were also anchored by two of the greatest centers of all-time, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Bill Walton. Their dominance can never occur in the men’s game again. First, there are a lot of one and done players. It is impossible to keep a great team together. Next, the gap has been closed in the men’s game as there are many programs that can compete with the top teams. The depth of talent is much greater and better distributed. As one can obviously see, the men’s tournament is infinitely more competitive. Similar to UCLA, UCONN is light years ahead of all other programs in the women’s game. Tennessee were its primary rival. Unfortunately, it has not been the same since the late, legendary Pat Summitt left the program. The talent in the women’s game is concentrated at the top and not nearly as deep or distributed as the men’s game. Since UCONN typically recruits and signs most of the top players, they are virtually unrivaled at this point. Nonetheless, 111 straight wins is undeniably a ridiculous accomplishment and one that should be respected and celebrated. As Friday night’s game showed, there could be a game when your team is not playing well, the opponent is playing great, and you need a couple of breaks to win. As such, 111 wins requires dominance and a little luck with injuries and some lucky bounces in some games. It is definitely the greatest record in the history of Women’s College Basketball. I do not understand the need to try to compare the record to the men’s game or other sports. Can they just be different, not comparable, and ranked within its own game? Geno Auriemma would definitely not be able to replicate the winning or anything a close to it in the men’s game. On the other hand, I do not think the top men’s coaches (e.g. Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, etc.) could duplicate Geno’s success in the women’s game. From my perspective, they are very different. They are all great coaches and should be respected as great basketball coaches. It is silly to try to detract from one to praise another.