DALLAS — Napheesa Collier sat on a folding table in the University of Connecticut locker room, her hands idle in her lap. She stared straight ahead, still stunned.
Is this what losing feels like? How was she supposed to know?
For Collier and four of her fellow UConn Huskies teammates, they didn’t know. This was all brand new.
Before Friday night’s stunning 66-64 overtime loss to Mississippi State in the national semifinal, the Huskies had won 111 consecutive games. That’s two undefeated regular seasons. Two pristine runs through the NCAA Tournament. The last time UConn lost, on Nov. 17, 2014, Collier and fellow sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson were still in high school.
When UConn graduated its three best players after last season, this new generation of Huskies inherited a championship legacy, even if their head coach, Geno Auriemma, didn’t believe that had earned it yet. But the winning continued, to 90 games, then 100, and finally 111 as the Huskies returned to the Final Four for the 10th consecutive year.
So many of those 111 wins came easy, that even when things got hard Friday night against Mississippi State — and that happened often, as they fell behind by 16 in the first quarter, and by eight at halftime, and were tied at the end of the third and fourth quarters — the Huskies believed they’d pull out of it and win, because they always did.
But then Morgan William’s jump shot beat the overtime buzzer, the Bulldogs dogpiled on the court at the American Airlines Center, and the Huskies trudged to the locker room in stunned silence. A loss had to happen sometime, but no one believed it would happen here.
“This kind of happened at the worst possible time,” Collier told USA TODAY Sports. “We have to use this to grow, because none of us want to feel this way again.”
Auriemma tried to console his players. This is real life, he told them, not the utopian basketball world the Huskies had been living in for the past two and a half years, and especially since the start of this season. Auriemma — plenty of times during the regular season — wished the streak would just end, providing him with the coaching tool he needed to get through to a young squad that didn’t know how to handle adversity, let alone losing.
“We kind of lived a charmed life for a long time,” Auriemma said.
This loss wasn’t a fluke. Auriemma said Mississippi State played better, from the opening tip through the critical final moments of overtime. The Huskies’ youth finally showed and the Huskies learned they weren’t invisible.
“When stuff like this happens, it kind of makes me shake my head and go, ‘You know how many times this could have happened and it didn’t happen?’” Auriemma said. “The fact that it never happened, that doesn’t mean I went home thinking it’s never going to happen. I knew this was coming at some point. I’m just shocked it took this long to get here.”
UConn will lose two seniors, starting guard Saniya Chong and reserve Tierneyy Lawlor. For the rest of the Huskies, there are practical lessons to be learned from the way the winning streak ended.
Energy and intensity matters, from the very beginning.
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