The UConn Huskies were only two games into the 2014-15 season when they headed to Palo Alto, California, to take on No. 6 Stanford.
It was an uncharacteristic poor shooting night for UConn, putting up just a 40.6 percent mark compared to the home team’s 49.2. Even so, it took overtime for the Cardinal to outlast the Huskies, snapping the two-time defending champion’s 47-game winning streak.
Well, coach Geno Auriemma clearly had no interest in experiencing the losing feeling again, and he hasn’t: 99 games later.
UConn will play host to No. 6 South Carolina on Monday, with the Gamecocks the only thing standing in the way of an inconceivable 100-game winning streak.
Of course, the real achievement came in a 91-42 smashing of Houston on Jan. 28, a game that gave the Huskies a 91-game winning streak to break their own record set from 2008-2010. But there’s something mystical about reaching the century mark, and all eyes will be on Gampel Pavilion on Monday.
It’s been an amazing run that has featured 14 wins over teams ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game and just two final scores decided by single digits.
With a team this historically dominant, how does anyone stand in the way in the next 100 games? It’s certainly not easy, and if there was a true formula then UConn probably wouldn’t be staring at a triple-digit winning streak, but here are five things that probably need to go right in order to topple the mighty Huskies.
Crash the offensive glass
The Huskies’ lead in just about every stat is borderline comical — plus-17.7 in field-goal percentage and plus-13.1 assists per game, to name a couple. But there is one category where their opponents have an advantage: offensive rebounds.
Yes, despite UConn holding an overall plus-5.9 rebounding margin per game, opponents have snagged 46 more offensive boards.
The only two games decided by single digits since the streak began were played this season. Let’s take a look at the offensive rebounding margins in those close calls:
|Date/opponent||UConn O-rebounds||Opponent O-rebounds||Margin|
|Nov. 14, 2016 vs. Florida St.||8||16||Minus-8|
|Dec. 29, 2016 vs. Maryland||13||19||Minus-6|
Well, that’s certainly interesting. Small sample size or not, Florida State and Maryland — teams that each rank inside the top 25 in offensive boards per game — took the Huskies to the brink with the help of the offensive glass. Nothing else was really awry in those games — UConn shot the ball fine, and the two teams combined for just 25.6 percent from outside — but the ability to keep possessions alive to get second-chance points and tire out the defense played huge roles.
Hang tough early
Auriemma has a way of getting his players to practically suck the life out of their opponents from the moment the game begins. It’s not unusual to check the score partway through the first quarter and see UConn already holding something like an 18-4 lead.
The numbers certainly back this trend up. This season, the Huskies lead their opponents 550-259 in the first 10 minutes — an average score of 22.9-10.8. Some of the more dramatic first-quarter over the last few weeks have been 30-6 over then-No. 20 South Florida and 26-2 at SMU.
Keeping it close in the first quarter certainly doesn’t stand as a guarantee that you’ve weathered the storm for the rest of the game — Texas led 17-15 after one and lost by 18, Ohio State kept it a three-point deficit only to trail by 22 after three quarters.
But Florida State, which gave UConn its biggest test by far in the season opener, matched the Huskies’ play in the first and parlayed that into a narrow rest of the game. It was only a plus-eight third quarter that gave UConn just enough to start the post-Breanna Stewart era with a win.
Go at the role players
On the note of third quarters, those are nearly as dominant as the first: UConn leads 580-330 (24.2-13.8 average). The lesson here? UConn’s starting five is incredibly good. But it also hints that maybe getting into its bench is when you can get some shots in as long as you can keep things close when the starters are on the court.
And the numbers would support that, at least on the offensive side of the ball. UConn’s starters average 148.5 of the 200 minutes of court time. The group averages 0.50 points per minute.
But take the five players who have seen minutes off the bench, and it’s just 0.29 points per minute. There’s a massive offensive dropoff, with the leading bench scorer Natalie Butler averaging just 5.8 points in 17.5 minutes a game.
Of course, the hanging variable here is that UConn plays a lot of blowouts. As in, nearly every game. So a lot of these bench minutes are being used up in garbage time, when plays aren’t being run very rigorously and there’s an emphasis on running down the shot clock. In a game that UConn has any threat of losing, the bench would get very little play, especially down the stretch.
But the starters can’t each play 40 minutes, and there will be some opportunities to take advantage of some of the Huskies’ B-team. If a well-conditioned team could keep its best players on the court when that happens and still conserve enough energy for the rest of the game, that could be a golden opportunity to make a dent in the score. Alternatively, a team with a deep rotation and a few playmakers off the bench could also be a good matchup.
Don’t leave points behind
A common key at all levels of basketball, and something countless teams have looked back on with regret after a close loss, is wasting opportunities at the free-throw line. And, though perhaps the close part doesn’t apply, UConn’s opponents have done themselves no favors in that department.
Whoever is finally able to get over the UConn mountain isn’t likely going to do it by too many points. Every point will be precious, and the opposing players can’t miss out on those freebies. If you don’t score at the free-throw line, you’re going to have to score amid UConn’s ferocious defense.
Making it more difficult is that the Huskies are in the top five in terms of fewest fouls committed. Help isn’t likely coming in the form of foul trouble, as only Napheesa Collier averages more than two fouls per game, and that’s just barely. If you don’t limit unforced errors, your clock may strike midnight.
Good ol’ fashioned luck
Yeah, that’s the way it goes. You can be active on the glass, come out ready for the Huskies’ attack, pick the right opportunities to strike and make the shots you should, and it might still not be enough to end the streak. Sometimes you just have to hope the bounces go your way and the shots don’t go down.
But even the best shooters have off nights, and it might take one of those from a Katie Lou Samuelson or Kia Nurse to avoid points that would normally be automatic.
When Stanford gave the Huskies their last loss back in 2014, that was the case. Stanford was a good defensive team but not an elite one, but the Huskies just had one of those nights. A team that shot a nation-best 40.6 percent from deep was just 11-of-30 that night, as shots just weren’t going down like they were supposed to.
So, briefly, what are the chances that South Carolina rains on UConn’s parade and keeps the longest streak ever from reaching triple digits?
The Gamecocks are a solid offensive rebounding team, averaging around 14 a game. Their best quarter is the first, where they are outscoring opponents 20.2-12.7. But their bench doesn’t pack much of a punch and they’re a middle-of-the-road 70.5 percent free-throw shooting team. Plus, that factor of the game being in Connecticut, where the Huskies haven’t lost since January of 2013.
In short, picking against UConn is never a wise decision, so it seems rather likely that the Huskies will be celebrating 100 straight on Monday. But South Carolina is as good a candidate as anyone to do it. If the two were to meet again in a neutral Elite Eight or Final Four setting, things could get interesting.