The last time the Connecticut women were not in the Final Four, Twitter was less than a year old. Instagram did not exist. The iPhone had just been introduced.
The last time the Connecticut women were not in the Final Four, George Bush was in the White House. That’s three presidents ago.
The last time the Connecticut women were not in the Final Four, Paige Bueckers, the sophomore star on a repaired knee, was not yet in kindergarten back in Minnesota. By the way, there’s where this Final Four will be. As Bueckers said in her television interview Monday night, the reality of the NCAA tournament is win or go home. Her team won and she’s going home.
😤 PAIGE BUECKERS: Check out the highlights from Bueckers' 27-point performance
Fourteen Final Fours in a row, barely. The wondrous 91-87 double overtime win over North Carolina No-Luck State was the latest argument that this belongs on the short list of monumental sports achievements of the age. Any sport. Maybe any age.
Think of it this way. That means Connecticut has gone 56-0 since 2007 in the first and second rounds, Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. North Carolina State was the 45th different program the Huskies had to beat to keep the streak going.
Consider this, too. Only two other programs — Tennessee and Stanford — have been in 14 Final Fours ever. The longest streak any other program has had is five.
This is another stratosphere, with an historical burden heavy enough to sink a team if it is not careful. Geno Auriemma has tried to use all that glorious past as an educational tool for his current players to understand what they must do what they do. It’s worked before. Not as “a yoke that you’re dragging, the tradition that you’re dragging, having to live up to it. It’s not easy being these kids with the pressures they they’re under.”
And the streak has been under siege. The walks in the park to the Final Four are over for Connecticut. This isn’t 2010, when the Huskies won by 56, 54, 38 and 40 points to get there. Or 2017, when it was 52, 46, 60 and 21. That 56-0 record includes 31 victories by 30-plus points and only seven by single figures, but five of those seven have come in the past three tournaments, including the closest calls of all; Baylor by two points in 2021, North Carolina State in Monday night’s epic. The Huskies had their hands full with UCF last week, too.
That’s why maybe, in a way, the 14th in a row should mean even more, because they had to work so hard for it. They had to win this game three times, losing a lead in the final minute of regulation and final second of the first overtime. There were 18 ties and 26 lead changes. It was a night of no blinking.
“It was just amazing the way the 10 kids that are on the court are playing for their lives. Nobody wants to lose, and everybody is making big play after big play and nobody backed down from the moment,” Auriemma said afterward. “It was the kind of basketball game that makes you appreciate how great this game can be. I don’t think there could be better advertising for what women’s basketball can be than what you saw tonight.”
There are very few things Auriemma’s program has not accomplished, but one of them was to win an NCAA tournament in overtime, going a baffling 0-5. The Huskies have now. And to fully measure the magnitude of what they just did, the long road to this night must be noted. All the injuries, all the lineup tinkering and gap-filling. Bueckers, with a wrecked knee, has played in only 15 of the 34 games. Only two Huskies have been in all 34. Auriemma has used 11 different starting lineups and nine different players have started at least 10 games.
MADNESS: View the 2022 March Madness interactive bracket
Connecticut never loses in the conference, but did in February at Villanova. The Huskies are never out of the top 10 in the polls, but in December they were.
Even on this happy Monday there was a player in great pain, Dorka Juhasz with a horrible wrist fracture, as Auriemma tried to detail afterward. “I’ve got gotten pretty good at doctors describing things to me this year,” he said.
So it has never been easy. And still, Connecticut is Connecticut. The sport needs the Huskies to be on stage doing . . . something. “You hear all the platitudes about you’re this, you’re that and you hear the other part, too,” Auriemma said. “The ratings on SNY were through the roof when we were playing lousy and I asked them why and they said, don’t discount how many people tune in to see you lose.”
Monday was a bad night for that audience demographic. The Huskies were back to the unstoppable force of March. The Final Four team by decree. Location helped. North Carolina State had to play this game in Bridgeport, Conn. Not exactly Gene Auriemma’s driveway, but close. And the Wolfpack chased the Huskies to the wire and beyond. No team in the tournament will lose with more honor.
But the arena noise didn’t swing this as much as Bueckers with 27 points and a nearly non-stop series of late key plays, more herself than at any time since her injury. She was the light to get her team through this trial. “Literally I was thinking, we have Paige Bueckers and they don’t,” said teammate Christyn Williams, who had 21 points herself.
Maybe the season ends for Connecticut Friday, where Stanford will be waiting. The championship runs have stopped for the Huskies, at least momentarily. The last title was 2016. But the Final Fours haven’t. Fourteen in a row. Before the first bounce in Minneapolis, that must be savored, and appreciated.
“It could end tomorrow. It could end next week. It could end next year, like everything else ends,” Auriemma said., “But kids like Paige won’t let it end.”
Then he mentioned the harsh fate for Juhasz.
“It’s another reminder, all this is well and good . . . all these shiny moments. Well, one moment that ain’t shiny and your season is over. That’s how fragile all this is, and that’s why you’ve got to appreciate it and you’ve got to enjoy it. I don’t care how many of these we win, they’re still like the first one. No different.”
Different in one way. The first was fulfilling and satisfying. The 14th in a row is on another planet.