Geno Auriemma, reflecting on NCAA final loss, says UConn would still need a ‘little bit of luck’ to beat South Carolina

MINNEAPOLIS — UConn’s women’s basketball team played and won its first NCAA Finals in this city in 1995. And in 10 subsequent national championship game appearances, coach Geno Auriemma and his program were undefeated — until Sunday evening.

Back in Minneapolis 27 years later, that 11-0 streak ended as the No. 2-seeded Huskies fell to No. 1 South Carolina 64-49.

Those 49 points were the second fewest UConn had ever scored in an NCAA tournament game; the lowest came in a 75-47 loss to Vanderbilt in the second round of the 1992 tournament.

Before Sunday, the last time the Huskies struggled so badly offensively in an NCAA tournament loss was the 2008 Elite Eight, in a 73-50 loss to an LSU team led by a dominant post player in Sylvia Fowles. On Sunday, they met another in Aliyah Boston, South Carolina, the consensus National Player of the Year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

“I’ve always said it: you have to be really good and have a bit of luck to win the national championship,” Auriemma said. “First of all, though, you have to be very good. You have to be very balanced and you have to be everything South Carolina is. You have to have a good guard game. Your big guys have to be able to dominate d one way or the other, then you need a bit of luck.

“The 11 times we won, I would say maybe all 11 – but at least 10 – we had the best team. We played like we were the best team, and we were well balanced and covered all the basics and we had everything you needed to win a championship.”

Auriemma didn’t think that was the case this season. The Huskies had to overcome a serious challenge from UCF in the second round and then survive a double overtime game against No. 1 seed NC State in the Bridgeport Regional Final.

“We said when we got here we’re going to need a little help from Stanford on Friday night, and they didn’t shoot the ball like they normally do,” Auriemma said. “And we were going to need a little help tonight, and [South Carolina] did not cooperate.”

It’s now the longest NCAA title drought — six years — for the Huskies since winning their first in 1995. The second national championship came in 2000, and the rest came in bunches: 2002, 2003 , 2004, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Then in 2017, the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak was snapped by Morgan William’s jump shot in overtime, as Mississippi State defeated UConn in the first of four straight national semifinal losses. Notre Dame beat the Huskies in the Final Four in 2018 and 2019, and Arizona topped them last season.

UConn managed to beat Stanford on Friday as the Cardinal’s offense struggled. But the tone set from the start on Sunday was not in favor of the Huskies. South Carolina shot 50% from the field en route to a 22-8 first-quarter lead, and the Huskies were never able to catch up.

UConn sophomore Paige Bueckers, who missed 19 games after suffering a knee injury in December, returned to help UConn make its 14th consecutive Final Four. Her 27-point performance in the Elite Eight saved the season, but Bueckers was limited to 14 points in the two Final Four games.

“It was an amazing weekend. Just being able to be here with my team and spending more time together, making more memories and doing it at home was amazing,” said the Minnesota native. “I mean, no one in my position would be happy right now, so I’m obviously upset with how things have ended.

“Super proud of this team for how far we’ve come and all the adversity we’ve faced and everything we’ve overcome to get to this point. But at UConn, it’s national championship or nothing. So obviously upset, frustrated, disappointed.”

Auriemma credited the South Carolina defense for limiting Bueckers.

“We knew this was coming,” he said. “I don’t think from the start of the game our offense ever seemed to be in any kind of rhythm, any kind of flow. Then Paige tried to take it upon herself to do it – that doesn’t never works, when a person is But I thought their guards were completely dominating play on the perimeter and it was really hard for one of our guys to look good.

He acknowledged that the Huskies weren’t 100% physically; forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa suffered a groin problem and guard Azzi Fudd missed the shot due to illness. But Auriemma said even if South Carolina had played, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.

“It was just an ongoing series of events that we had to keep dealing with,” he said of the season. “It just hasn’t stopped all year. I think it was a remarkable effort on their part to stick together as well as they have throughout the year and to be in this game.

“But once you get into this game, you want to win this game. You’re not just happy to be here. But I think when that wears off, I think they’ll appreciate the effort it takes. took to get here.”