MINNEAPOLIS — Connecticut has spent almost three decades as the most formidable threat in women’s college basketball, dangerous even when not ranked No. 1 in Division I for weeks at a time — which is where the Huskies spent a significant portion of that time.
But after losing to South Carolina on Sunday night, the Huskies no longer have a perfect record in N.C.A.A. championship games. For the first time since 2008, some UConn players will graduate without having won a national title. And the program, so often thought of as a dynasty, is in the midst of its longest championship drought since winning the first of its 11 championships in 1995. Though it has been a fixture in the Final Four in recent years, its last championship was in 2016.
“This is UConn, so it’s a national championship or nothing,” the star sophomore guard Paige Bueckers said after the game, looking out at reporters with red-rimmed eyes. “I’m obviously upset, frustrated and disappointed.”
Her coach, Geno Auriemma, was uncharacteristically subdued while speaking with reporters after the game. Instead of ascribing the defeat to his players’ “immaturity,” as he did after last year’s national semifinal loss to Arizona, the second-winningest coach in Division I women’s basketball history insisted he was proud of his team for making it this far.
Auriemma went through the laundry list of hurdles the Huskies had overcome during the season — most of them related to staying healthy — and added that forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa had played with an injury sustained in Friday’s game against Stanford, and that freshman guard Azzi Fudd had fallen ill overnight and hadn’t gone to shootaround.
The team certainly faced plenty of adversity. Most notable among its various setbacks was Bueckers’ midseason knee injury, which contributed to the Huskies’ worst regular season in 17 years.
Even that injury, though, still doesn’t account for the questions that loom over every move Auriemma makes at this point in his storied career: Is the fabled UConn Huskies dynasty losing its power? Is this loss, more than any of the previous Final Four defeats, the one that signals the end of an era?
“It’s another reminder of how hard it is to win here,” Auriemma said. “Usually the better team wins when you get here, and we just weren’t good enough.”
Hearing Auriemma say that it’s hard to win can sound almost unbelievable, considering how easy he has made it look for the past three decades. Connecticut has long had the better team in its games — it has spent entire seasons blowing out teams by 30 or 40 points, and nearly cruised to its 11 championships.
UConn’s dominance may have begun to recede, but the stretch without a title is also a testament to the growth of programs built to challenge its position at the top of the heap. South Carolina, for example, is now a two-time champion whose claim to powerhouse status is made stronger by the fact that, unlike in 2017, the Gamecocks had to go through the Huskies to win this championship.
“A lot of what we’re able to do and get is off the backs of their success,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said before the championship game. “I think the people up at UConn treat their women’s basketball team as a sport. They’re forced to because of all the winning and all the success, but you could take a page out of their book.”
Whether this loss is attributable to the Huskies not being what they used to be, the development of even stiffer competition or just a slew of bad breaks — perhaps all three reasons are valid — Auriemma is optimistic that his young team will have much to offer next season.
“I like our chances,” said Auriemma, who will return his two A-list recruits in Fudd and Bueckers and add Ayanna Patterson and Isuneh Brady, both ranked in the top five of the 2022 class by ESPN.
“Provided we don’t have to navigate a season like we did this year, and — knock on wood — if we stay healthy,” Auriemma said, “I expect to be back here next year.”