Monday night in Columbia, South Carolina, the Connecticut women’s basketball program entered its 22nd 1-versus-2 game. The Huskies’ record in their first 21 such encounters: 18-3.
The 2016 edition of the Huskies didn’t exactly have an easy task in front of them in the attempt to push that record to 19-3.
UConn faced an unbeaten opponent, a team which came within one shot of making the 2015 national championship game. The South Carolina Gamecocks have established themselves as a powerful, resourceful program, coached with distinction by Dawn Staley.
The woman who has transformed the South Carolina program began her luminous basketball career on the court. As a player, she took Virginia to the national championship game in 1991 and then became one of the most decorated Olympians in basketball history. Staley forged a spectacular resume in three Olympiads, earning three gold medals with USA Basketball in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
Dawn Staley is a supreme competitor, someone who knows what it means to enter a difficult situation, change a culture, and dramatically raise expected standards of performance.
UConn was not playing a soft team or a deficient coach. It was not playing an opponent which lacked credentials… and the game wasn’t being played in Storrs or Hartford, either. It was a situation set up for South Carolina to have a chance at the very least, and to — on a good night — win.
After three quarters — two of which featured meager eight-point totals from the Gamecocks — the hosts in South Carolina had been “Conn-ed.”
Geno Auriemma, Breanna Stewart, and the rest of the Huskies claimed a 54-33 lead and cruised to an “easier-than-it-looked” 12-point victory. The final score was 66-54, but UConn could have won by 30 if it wanted to — this, on a night when an unbeaten No. 2 team was playing at home with a highly experienced collection of proven players.
It’s not an insult or the product of lazy analysis to say the following: You can pretty much put UConn in the Women’s Final Four at this point, and if Notre Dame isn’t UConn’s opponent in that Final Four, you can pretty much give the Huskies one more national championship, as long as no one gets hurt.
Yes, the UConn coaches and players have to put in the work needed to win at a high level, so in that sense, nothing is certain. However, Geno and Stewie and the rest of a complete team have shown — it is the nature of their greatness, so convincingly displayed — that they don’t rest until the job is finished. It’s not an insult to women’s basketball or other teams to say that everyone else is playing for second place.
UConn has won 60 straight games… the third-longest streak in program history behind 90- and 70-game streaks earlier in Auriemma’s tenure.
The Huskies have won three straight national championships.
They’re 51-10 against top-10-ranked teams since the start of the 2008-2009 season, with “clusters” of losses (i.e., more than one) coming in the 2011 and 2012 seasons when they didn’t claim a national title.
All of this raises a number of necessary points — not just about women’s basketball, but about the way we perceive and react to sports on a general level.
You don’t have to like it when one team or athlete dominates the sport and doesn’t encounter a strong, robust, legitimate challenge to its supremacy.
Thank goodness the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder are there to (at least potentially) stand in the way of the Golden State Warriors.
It was not satisfying for fans of Serena Williams, but it was refreshing for a lot of sports fans when Angelique Kerber stood up to the decorated 21-time major champion in the recent Australian Open women’s singles final.
The New England Patriots are the greatest NFL team of this century, with the most gifted coach since Vince Lombardi and the best quarterback since Joe Montana. Yet, the Denver Broncos have beaten them in two recent AFC Championship Game meetings.
We love dominance. We love excellence. However, we also want something other than a foregone conclusion in our sports.
With UConn women’s basketball, it’s not only been difficult to shrug off the notion of a foregone conclusion; such an instinct has not been invalidated over the past three seasons and most of the past eight. It just is.
This, however, is the sticky part of our story. Unchecked dominance is what causes many sports arguments — and the feelings of fans — to turn in the wrong direction.
Yes, when one player or team dominates the rest of a sport and meets with little to no resistance, such a reality is boring. (Emphasis on the word “reality.”) A moment is deprived of a substantial amount of drama. True, it remains fascinating to see just how high that dominant force — a single athlete or a team — can climb, but there’s no question that lopsided championship matches soaked in an “aura of inevitability” detract from the totality of what we want sports to be. We want a maximum of theater and tension, and that can’t exist if the result is likely to be a decisive thumping.
However, let’s say this once more, with feeling: The REALITY of a lopsided competitive context is boring.
The team or player authoring such dominance should not be seen as boring — not ever.
We all strive to be excellent at what we do — lawyers, doctors, marketers, scientists, teachers, writers, you name it. The idea that excellence of craftsmanship is “boring” (the inference being that such excellence is ordinary or not to be celebrated) would upset most if not all of us if we heard the “B-word” from someone else.
Accordingly, we shouldn’t find UConn to be at fault for this situation. We shouldn’t view the Huskies as the force that might be diminishing our interest in women’s college basketball.
Calling the Huskies boring is very much akin to any idiotic talk-show host (I’m not going to name names and give them the publicity they seek…) calling the Golden State Warriors boring, or saying that Stephen Curry is hurting the game of basketball. Even if we all know what they mean, they’re still idiots (nothing less) for saying what they said.
They should know better. The authors of excellence are never boring. It’s the competition’s fault for not rising to the higher standard being set by the reigning No. 1.
Consider men’s tennis as the example the rest of women’s college basketball should study in relationship to UConn and Geno’s juggernaut.
Many people felt that in the mid-2000s — roughly 10 years ago — Roger Federer’s reign atop men’s tennis was boring.
Some might still adhere to what they thought and felt a decade ago, but many of them surely meant to say that the REALITY of Federer dominating with little resistance is what was boring.
Rafael Nadal changed that in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
Rafa didn’t just beat Federer on the clay where he was so comfortable; he beat Fed on the grass where the Swiss towered above everyone else for years. Nadal overtook Federer. Then, Novak Djokovic overtook Nadal and might pass him on the list of all-time major singles titles. The example of men’s tennis is the example the rest of women’s college basketball must absorb.
The greatest of champions can be exceeded… and in fact, what makes this story so compelling is that it has happened in women’s college basketball itself. Where’s the coach who will do for one program what Geno Auriemma did at UConn when Pat Summitt and Tennessee were dominating women’s hoops in the 1990s?
That’s right — Tennessee used to be the ruler of women’s college basketball, the first gold-standard program which everyone else aspired to be. Stanford and Tara VanDerveer have remained relevant for a quarter of a century, and Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame can rightly say that her program has stood up to UConn over the past several years. Kim Mulkey and Baylor — thanks mostly (but not entirely) to Brittney Griner — forged a dominant national championship season. Texas A&M and Gary Blair won it all in 2011 with Danielle Adams leading the way.
It’s possible to stand in the way of UConn’s brilliance. In a four-year stretch — 2005 through 2008 — the Huskies didn’t win a single national title. However, as soon as Pat Summitt began to lose the full measure of her health, the Lady Vols declined as well — not to the point of irrelevance, but short of the Final Four measuring-stick the program has always maintained. The list of UConn’s challengers is small, and yes, that certainly is boring to an undeniable extent.
Yet, as shown by the complete takedown of a highly accomplished and credentialed South Carolina team on Monday, UConn isn’t doing this with shortcuts. The Huskies aren’t winning national titles by beating inferior teams. They DO play them, and not just at home. They still rise to a much higher plateau, anyway.
That’s to their credit. The Huskies play women’s basketball much better than anyone else does.
That’s in no way a negative for a sport — after all, how can it possibly be a downer when human beings demonstrate exactly how a sport (or any craft) should be performed?
If you think UConn women’s hoops is boring, you’re looking — and arguing, and thinking — in the wrong places.
Lament what other teams aren’t doing to keep up. Excellence should never be lamented.