Jeff Jacobs: Yes, it sucks for UConn, but it was great for women’s basketball
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When it was over, after Arike Ogunbowale had jab stepped and jabbed the piercing blow into UConn’s heart, Azura Stevens, tears in her eyes, could only shake her head and manage two words.
When it was over, after Muffet McGraw and her players had joined the Notre Dame cheerleaders and the leprechaun mascot in an Irish jig to the joyous sounds of Rakes of Mallow, Gabby Williams, tears in her eyes, could only manage the same two words.
“It sucks,” Stevens said.
“It sucks,” Williams said.
Yes, for UConn, especially for seniors Kia Nurse and Williams to go out this way, with another last-second jaw-dropping overtime Final Four loss, it most certainly sucked.
This was an amazing Friday night of women’s basketball at Nationwide Arena, as amazing a night as there has been in the history of the sport. Mississippi State, which had ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak last year in the Final Four, returned to beat Louisville in overtime.
Teaira McCowan, a powerful 6-foot-7 presence, put up one of those old-fashioned 21-point, 25-rebound performances that would have made Wilt and Russell proud. It was a great game and great for the game. It was the warmup act.
Contrary to what the nimrods who make every UConn game sound like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals say, any of the four No. 1 seeds that advanced to the Final Four had a strong chance to win the 2018 national championship.
The fact that it will not be UConn for the second year in a row should continue to plant seeds for the continued growth of the sport and give immediate designs to a dozen schools that already are contenders.
And to all that, UConn fans can manage those same two words.
Yeah. It sucks.
“When you do something and it seems like it’s so effortless, you do get numb and forget,” said Auriemma, who has a record 11 national championships. “It’s difficult. It’s very, very difficult. There are no bad teams. There’s no bad players. You can’t luck into a national championship.
“When your team gets to the Final Four, it’s not your team that’s going to beat the other team. Generally, there’s one or two players that just make unbelievable plays and just dominate the game. You never know who they’re going to be.”
Last year in Dallas it was Morgan William in overtime over the outstretched fingers of Williams to beat the buzzer. This year in Columbus it was Ogunbowale over the outstretched fingers of Napheesa Collier with one second left in overtime.
Because it ended the longest streak in college basketball history, Mississippi State’s victory will stand for the ages.
This one was an even better game. Ogunbowale’s shot was even more difficult than William’s.
“It’s hard to believe,” Auriemma said.
Goliath only had gone down once to David’s stone.
UConn has gone down twice.
“It’s harder than the first time,” Auriemma said. “Just like last year, it came down to one play, one shot. They made it.”
Why did this one hurt worse?
“Because of the amount of times we kept fighting back, I think it stings a little more.”
Notre Dame has physical wide bodies. Notre Dame has quick guards with Jackie Young and Ogunbowale to penetrate the lane and get to the line. Young, who finished with 32 points, and Ogunbowale, who had 27, took 19 free throws. UConn got to the line six times.
Notre Dame can score with UConn and Notre Dame is fearless. The Huskies wanted to concentrate their defensive effort on Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey. The Huskies gave Young, the third perimeter option, some room and she responded with 10-for-15 from the field.
“We just weren’t good enough to defend all three of them,” Auriemma said. “Jackie Young was spectacular. We knew what Arike could do. Jackie Young was too good for us.”
Notre Dame punched first, taking a 24-11 lead. UConn punched back, going on a 30-6, run. From there it was back and forth, back and forth. The Huskies took an eight-point lead with 6:49 left. Down the stretch they turned the ball over four of five possessions and Notre Dame took a five-point lead with 21.3 seconds to go.
The Irish couldn’t finish the job. Collier hit a three. Incredibly, Nurse stole the ball and scored with nine seconds left to tie it. Jessica Shepard lost the ball out of bounds and Williams had a chance to win it. She missed with a couple of seconds left.
“We got the ball exactly where we wanted it,” Auriemma said. “I was surprised Gabby was that open in the lane. I think she just lost track of how much time was left.
“In the moment, it either goes in or it doesn’t. This season we had scenarios like that in practice more than the last 10 years combined. Unlike last year when I thought we always struggled executing these things, this year we were really good at everything we worked on.”
Notre Dame took a five-point lead with 44 seconds left in overtime. Again, UConn tied it on a Dangerfield three with 27 seconds left.
And then, it happened. Ogunbowale happened.
“Sometimes you have to be exposed to this and fail,” Auriemma said. “It’s a great learning tool. But I’m a pretty smart guy. I don’t need to learn this [crap] two years in a row.”
UConn is 72-2 the past two seasons.
Neither season will be remembered as a success.
“That’s the world we live in,” Auriemma said pointing to the similar demands of the Patriots. “That’s the world we created. We look around [at 72-2] and have nothing to show for it. Don’t get me wrong, these kids the last five months have been pretty amazing.
“I think as time goes by they’ll get a better appreciation for what happened this season. But they’re not going to forget this one. This one hurts.”
It’s good to look at the big picture, Auriemma said, even on a night of heartache. And the big picture is Williams and Nurse still leave with two national titles. The rest get to return for another shot.
“That’s the requirement, every year you want to have a chance at the national championship,” said Auriemma, who is 11-8 in Final Four games and never lost in the championship. “Notre Dame has that chance [Sunday] and their last one was 2001. If you knock on the door enough times, eventually you will win.
“To think we’re going to win it every year, to think every shot will drop, it’s totally unrealistic. If it gets to the point at Connecticut where you have to win the championship every year, year after year, and every shot the other team takes has to not go in, if it gets to that point, if I was a kid I’d never come to Connecticut. There has got to be way more to it than just that.”
But, as Azura Stevens and Williams said, it sucks.