STORRS, Conn. — The UConn women’s basketball team left the Final Four in Dallas last season without a national championship and without a winning streak, but players will tell you, with the perspective, motivation and preparedness that comes with a realization that championships aren’t won simply because one is used to winning them.

So as the Huskies begin a new NCAA tournament journey, four victories from an 11th consecutive Final Four and six from a 12th national title, they are, more than ever, flashing back to last year’s upset loss to Mississippi State – and not just because highlights of that game were splashed all over the TVs they were watching Monday night while the 64-team bracket was unveiled.

“I think we have a different approach in just understanding what we need to get done,” junior Katie Lou Samuelson said. “I think one thing that came out of last year is that we know, and I think everyone else does, that we are beatable. We just have to be able to do what we do every game and play as hard as we possibly can because we know how easily it can get cut short.”

Most of UConn’s prominent players are able to deal with that loss and claim that, because of it, they have spent this season embracing all the fine details that – maybe, occasionally – they let slip through the course of last season until they were ultimately caught off guard.

Here’s the reality, though. The Huskies are about to face critical moments – doubtfully in Storrs, perhaps in Albany, certainly in Columbus, Ohio, if they advance – that will make or break their quest for another perfect season. Whether they are truly better equipped to handle everything the spotlight and opponents throw at them will be determined when the ball is in the air, not when they’re reflecting on a loss and its value.

“They’re better at saying they’re prepared,” Coach Geno Auriemma said. “You don’t know. You’re not prepared to do something until it’s time to do it. And then you go, ‘Huh, we were ready for this.’ Or, ‘We weren’t.’ … Where does this take us? We’re a different team than we were last year. We’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature, we have two pieces that we didn’t have.”


Yes, UConn is different – and better, one could argue. Sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield was not a difference-maker down the stretch of her freshman season, and junior forward Azura Stevens was in street clothes, sitting out per NCAA transfer rules. The rest of the crew – seniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, juniors Samuelson and Napheesa Collier and others – have not only last season’s experiences but the year of training, practices and games that followed.

“So that would mean we’re going to be a little bit different team,” Auriemma said. “My thing right now is, if we can put ourselves in that same situation again, then we’ll see whether we’re prepared or not. But we’ve got a long way to go between now and then.”

The Huskies (32-0), the tournament’s top overall seed, open Albany Region play Saturday at Gampel Pavilion against St. Francis (Pa.) and, with a victory, would advance to face Miami or Quinnipiac in the second round. Two wins on their home court and two more in Albany (where they could meet defending national champion South Carolina in the Elite Eight) would send UConn to Columbus for the Final Four (where the Huskies could meet Notre Dame in a national semifinal).

That’s where a 111-game winning streak ended last season, and where this season’s flame began to flicker.

“We have a lot of different strengths than last year,” Samuelson said. “We have different people. I think (Stevens) adds a lot to our game and Crystal has improved a lot as a player. We feel more comfortable together on the court.”

Senior Saniya Chong, not Dangerfield, was on the court when Mississippi State’s Morgan William hit the overtime winner in Dallas. In the time since, while Stevens has proven to be a game changer in the post, Dangerfield has developed into a well-rounded point guard. She was fantastic early in the season and then hit a late-season lull while dealing with lingering shin splints, but made the all-tournament team at the AAC tournament last week.

“How (she) carried (herself) was different, the way the other kids responded, it just was different,” Auriemma said of Dangerfield’s play this season. “It was just like, ‘I’m the point guard and I’m going to do what I’m going to do.’ Whereas last year she was walking around going, ‘I don’t know what to do, so I’m not going to do anything.’ (Pain with shin splints) comes and goes. We just have to monitor it. We’re certainly not the same team without her out there, we’re just not.”

UConn brings into the tournament all that comes with a long season – the good (development, motivation) and the bad (wear and tear). Are they prepared to meet the next moment? We’ll know when it is upon them.

“I wouldn’t say we look at it like our season is just now starting,” Williams said. “Going into this tournament, anything can happen. Teams play at a higher level, they come with adrenaline, come with a super tight focus. So it’s almost like a new season.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.