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Women’s Final Four — For UConn, déjà vu hurts a little bit more

 

Women’s Final Four COLUMBUS, Ohio — UConn seniors Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse embraced in the hallway of Nationwide Arena on Friday, the reality sinking in that their college careers were over. And for the second year in a row, they were not playing in the national championship game.

Could it really have happened again? An overtime loss in the national semifinals, thanks to a big shot from an opposing guard? Yeah, it really did.

Women’s Final Four VU Hurts A Little Bit More:

Just like in 2017,Women’s Final Four the Huskies’ only loss all season came at the Women’s Final Four. This program has been to a record 19 of those, 11 in a row. The Huskies have never lost a NCAA final; they are 11-0 in those. But the semis have been the round that’s gotten them, now for the eighth time.

Last year, it was Mississippi State’s Morgan William who beat them at the overtime buzzer. This year, it was Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale, who sank a jump shot with 1 second left for a 91-89 overtime victory.

Last season, the Bulldogs ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak. This year, the Irish ended a 36-game win streak. Both years, the Huskies were the overall No. 1 seed and considered a heavy favorite to win the championship. Both years, they were going for the program’s seventh perfect season, but came up short.

Consider, though, it was just 13 days ago, when UConn opened the tournament with a 140-52 victory over No. 16 Saint Francis (Pa.), that there was the typical “the Huskies are unbeatable and bad for the sport” claptrap from the peanut gallery that doesn’t really watch women’s basketball.

Yet for the second year in a row, the Huskies have, indeed, proven to be beatable.

“When you do something, and it seems like it’s so effortless, you do get numb and forget. It’s difficult. It’s very, very difficult,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “There are no bad teams. There’s no bad players. You can’t luck into a national championship. You have to play great.”

It’s certainly not that the Huskies played badly Friday. But there were some cracks in the armor. And that really wasn’t the case when they won four NCAA titles in a row behind Breanna Stewart from 2013 to 2016. That stretch, adding to all the other Huskies lore, made UConn seem an even bigger Goliath.

“It’s tough when you have basically the whole world rooting against you, except your UConn support group,” the Huskies’ Katie Lou Samuelson said. “You can’t complain about it, though, because that’s what you signed up for. That’s what we knew coming in here it would be like. All of us have kind of accepted that.”

Samuelson, the American Athletic Conference player of the year, actually has not played in a national championship game, a rare thing for any UConn junior. She was injured in the national semifinals her freshman season in 2016, and wasn’t able to play in the final that the Huskies won against Syracuse. And now, UConn has had two semifinal losses in a row.

“It’s a different feeling than last year,” Samuelson said. “We worked so hard to get ourselves back in this situation and were prepared to make the most of it. Last year, also, was my very first loss ever playing college basketball. It’s a different type of disappointment this year. I think we had a better game this year. Last year, I felt like the way we played, we probably deserved to lose that game. This year, I felt we fought the whole game.”

Samuelson had 16 points and seven rebounds Friday. Fellow junior Napheesa Collier had 24 and five. Williams finished her UConn career with 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, while Nurse finished hers with 10 points and five rebounds, and got the steal and layup that tied the game 79-79 at the end of regulation.

And Azura Stevens, the 6-foot-6 post player who transferred from Duke and played her first season with the Huskies this year, had 19 points and eight rebounds in her first Final Four game.

The Huskies out-rebounded Notre Dame 41-38. But UConn had 17 turnovers, which Notre Dame turned into 21 points, and that hurt the Huskies. According to Her Hoop Stats, the Huskies’ turnover rate Friday on 97 plays was 17.6 percent, as opposed to 14.4 percent for the season. In a game this close, that made a difference.

So did defense, which Samuelson pointed to as perhaps the biggest culprit in the loss. She said the game compared to UConn’s 80-71 comeback victory over the Irish in December because of the way Notre Dame never backed down.

“Both games, they really came at us, and they really exposed a lot of weaknesses better than any other team has,” Samuelson said. “And me, personally, I could have done a lot better job on defense for my teammates. Throughout the whole game, I needed to be someone they could have relied on a little more.

Seniors Nurse and Williams were 148-3 in their careers, with two NCAA titles. Fantastic careers by any standard — except the near-impossible one that UConn is held to. Both struggled with their emotions when asked to put their time at UConn in perspective after Friday’s loss. But both will be picked in the upcoming WNBA draft and join so many other successful former Huskies in pros.

“They’ve had amazing careers, and won two championships,” Stevens said. “They’re really great players.”

Asked if she could walk away at least feeling proud of the way she played, though, Stevens was blunt.

“Yeah, but we didn’t win,” she said. “So it doesn’t really matter.”

 

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