UConn women's basketball: With Maryland out of way, Huskies marching toward another record
Six years ago, they were chasing the most iconic program in college basketball history.
Geno Auriemma and UConn built a winning streak that elevated the program to the level of John Wooden and UCLA. The Huskies passed UCLA's 88-game winning streak by two games before losing to Stanford on Dec. 30, 2010.
The 90-game streak, like the 11 national championships, is something that defines Auriemma's great program. It was a historic feat that transcended sports.
So now what?
UConn is marching toward a new record winning streak, clearing another hurdle Thursday night at Maryland. The No. 4 Terrapins were considered the last team capable of stopping the No. 1 Huskies, but UConn fought for an 87-81 win and the winning streak hit 87.
Next up is UCF Sunday in Orlando before UConn hosts East Carolina Jan. 4. The Huskies will look to match the record 90-game streak Jan. 10 against No. 23 USF and they could set a new record Jan. 14 at SMU.
And the streak could last for awhile. UConn, with seven wins over ranked teams, has developed a resilience and confidence over the first six weeks of the season. On Thursday, Maryland never relented and the Huskies (12-0) were continually pushed.
But as it has done all season, this young team found a way to win and the streak survived. After the game, Auriemma talked about the team's difficult early-season schedule, which not only threw his rebuilding team into the deep end of the pool but seemed to scoff at the very idea that preserving the streak was a priority.
"What's the streak got to do with anything that we do?" Auriemma said. "When we went through it last time, it was exciting, it was fun, everybody kept talking about it all the time, our kids were aware of it towards the end. They knew exactly what was going on, the hoopla. We had some older players on our team that had been through a lot. They felt like they were entitled to it."
"I think this team is young enough and they've not been a part of that many of them," Auriemma said. "And it's not something that we talk about and it's not something that I put any value on anymore."
Six years ago, the streak ended at Stanford. Katie Lou Samuelson, whose two older sisters would play at Stanford, was watching the game and was aware of UConn's streak.
Now she is part another streak. UConn carried a 75-game streak into the season and Samuelson was a member of the team that won 38 of those games last season.
This year, she is leading the charge toward history.
"Once you're actually in it, it does seem ... not less, but you play every single game the same way, so whether it's our first win, second win, or 80-whatever, we're going to play the same exact way," Samuelson said. "So kind of being in it, we don't really think about it."
What else did we learn about the Huskies Thursday night? Some takeaways:
Katie Lou can't be stopped
Samuelson felt sick before the game and Auriemma was not encouraged when he saw her, entertaining the idea that she might not be available. But she was focused on playing, even though her illness didn't subside.
They simply never lose.— ESPN (@espn) December 30, 2016
UConn women hold off No. 4 Maryland 87-81 for an 87th straight win. The Huskies are 134-1 in their last 135 games. pic.twitter.com/VtZFo4AI2Q
In fact, she struggled in the first half and briefly left the game because of her illness. But Samuelson played through it and was a difference maker in the second half, scoring 17 points. Auriemma said she grew up Thursday night and it was further proof that Samuelson (20.8 points per game) is now among the best players in the country.
Finding a way
While Samuelson has emerged as the team's go-to scorer, UConn has become a diverse team with many options. Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams were in foul trouble, so Samuelson, Kia Nurse (19 points in 40 minutes) and Saniya Chong (10 points, five assists) stepped up at various points in the game.
The Huskies don't much depth, but this is a team with a strong core. With multiple players capable to taking charge, UConn will be continue to be a difficult team to beat as the season progresses.
With nearly 18,000 fans screaming and Maryland making a second half run, UConn needed to settle the game. Credit Nurse for slowing the pace, talking to her teammates and calming the Huskies. Chong also showed maturity and patience, while Williams was vocal throughout the game.
That Nurse would emerge as the team's on-court leader is not a surprise. She has been a starter on two national title games, and has played on the big stage in college and at the Olympics last summer. Auriemma wondered before the season if this team had the player or players capable of managing stress and settling the the team when it's under duress. Nurse and her teammates have answered that question, over and over this season.
The Terps are good
Keep an eye on Maryland. This is a team that should be in the Final Four in the spring.
Brionna Jones, unlike other celebrated post players UConn has faced this season, is an aggressive, assertive player who makes baskets. She had 19 points and 13 rebounds, converting 6 of 7 shots.
But it was freshman Destiny Slocum who shined the most, with 23 points and seven assists. Another freshman, Kaila Charles, had 18 points.
With Jones and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Maryland has two top players. Slocum and Charles will only get better as the season progresses, so this team figures to be a title contender.
Gabby being Gabby
She was in foul trouble for much of the game, but Williams made an impact. Of course she did. We've learned through 12 games that Williams is the most valuable player on the team, a defensive stopper and an elite athlete capable of doing so many things. Against Maryland, she was taking more mid-range jumpers, and she had 16 points with nine rebounds and five assists.
If Williams adds a perimeter shot to her offensive game, she will be a player without a weakness.
This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.