UConn, for the First Time in Forever, Plays the Role of Underdog

In a Final Four rematch against Arike Ogunbowale and Notre Dame, Geno Auriemma's Huskies find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

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Nov 30 2018, 5:46pm

Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Geno Auriemma leaned back in his chair and considered the new reality in women's college basketball.

He's spent years trying to convince everyone—the media, but most of all his team—that unless they played at the nearly-perfect level expected at Connecticut, there would be consequences on the floor. But the truth was, Breanna Stewart's Huskies probably weren't going to lose regardless.

“I think the honest truth is that you become numb to anything other than: how do we create scenarios where our guys have to fight through them?”, Auriemma said. “Then now, you have to completely switch gears and go, we actually have to fight through shit.”

That's precisely what has happened to Connecticut over the past few seasons. Connecticut hasn't won a national title since Breanna Stewart left in 2016. Of course, this is only a lack of success relative to past UConn seasons—no other program in America would be disappointed by a pair of Final Four appearances, one-loss seasons, and sending multiple players directly to the WNBA.

Still, there's a change afoot: even when Connecticut lost in the Final Four each of the past two years, the loss came as a surprise—it was a shock, really, in 2017 when the Huskies fell to Mississippi State, and last season's loss to Notre Dame was, at the very least, unexpected.

Yet when Connecticut takes on Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon in South Bend, it is hard to argue that the Huskies will be anything but the underdog. Notre Dame is at home, the Irish are the No. 1 team in the country, with Connecticut just behind them at No. 2. It is tough to pinpoint the last time the Huskies were not favored in a game, but it likely hasn't been since the first Obama administration.

The Irish returned almost everyone from last year's championship including game-winning shot specialist Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young, the silky forward who Irish coach Muffet McGraw says has a chance to be the best player in program history, the unstoppable force that is 6'4" Jessica Shepard, clutch three-point shooter Marina Mabrey, and they also add the excellent Brianna Turner who returns from the injury that cost her last season.

Connecticut has plenty back from last year, too, but not nearly everyone: Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse, two vital parts of the team's defensive identity in 2017-18, are now WNBA standouts, and Azura Stevens left a season early for the Dallas Wings, too.

“When you lose three pros like we did, you're gonna have a lot of uncertainty,” Auriemma said. “When you lose a kid that you didn't think you were gonna lose, you have even more uncertainty. If you're replacing who left with another junior or senior, you might have less uncertainty, but the fact that that's not the case, so just a lot of different scenarios that I haven't been in in a while.”

It's left Auriemma with a starting five that includes all-Americans Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, the extremely underrated junior point guard Crystal Dangerfield, and the youthful exuberance and high-ceiling talents of sophomore Megan Walker and freshman Christyn Williams.

Early on, that's been more than sufficient. The Huskies are off to a 6-0 start. Williams actually leads the team in minutes per game, at 32.3, and effective field goal percentage, 70.7 percent. On Wednesday night, they faced their first real test, against the ranked and hyper-athletic DePaul.

The plucky underdogs from UConn went on a 24-0 run in the first half, led by 28 at halftime, and were never seriously challenged.

But Notre Dame, a night later, did much the same against Iowa, a ranked team led by future WNBA big Megan Gustafson. Ogunbowale, always a volume scorer, devastated Iowa with efficiency, 30 points on just 21 shots. The Irish went on a 20-3 run out of halftime, and led by 31 by the end of the third quarter. Gustafson wasn't nearly enough.

Although the sport has been defined by Connecticut in recent years, it has now returned to an equilibrium of a pair of worthy adversaries. Geno Auriemma and Connecticut, once again, are equals in contests that felt stacked against the rest of the country for years.

“I'm not sure that I like it,” Auriemma said. “You know? I always use playing cards as an example. You've gotten so many great hands playing black jack in Vegas that you go, 'This is like stealing money.' Until, all of a sudden, you gotta go like an hour where you lose, and you go, 'This isn't a lot of fun. I like it better the other way.'

“It's unlucky to be lucky for too long. That's an old Italian saying. That, at some point, you're gonna be like everybody else. And for the longest time, you've not been like anybody else. And, now we find ourselves in the position where, we're not just like anybody else, don't get me wrong, but we're not what we used to be. And, that's gonna take some adjustment.”