From the moment the UConn womenâs basketball team began its regular season at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 12, the mission was to prepare for three weekends in March.
Are the Huskies ready?
If they are, their next Goodbye Columbus will have them leaving with a record 12th national championship trophy.
If theyâre not, they know what can happen. They figure to be reminded of their loss to Mississippi State a year ago for as long as their tournament dreams are alive.
âWe still have business to handle, and we donât want emotions from last year to get the best of us,â UConn All-American Gabby Williams said. âAt the same time, we remember what we did and didnât do last year. So hopefully now weâll be better prepared for it. Now we have guys who have been there before and have the experience so we should be better.â
âJust having the experience last year and being on that stage makes us better prepared. It is completely different. You talk about it and hear about playing in the Final Four, but no one really knows what it is like until you are on that stage just how different it is. The atmosphere, the level of play and everything is more intense. I think that is the biggest lesson we learned from last year.â
Unbeaten UConn is the overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and the top seed for the Albany (New York) Regional. The Huskies begin their bid to regain the national championship Saturday against Northeast Conference representative and No. 16 Saint Francis of Pennsylvania at Gampel Pavilion.
On paper, the Huskies (32-0) have done everything asked of them. They were perfect through a non-league schedule that featured 10 teams that are joining them in the NCAA Tournament and three others that are WNIT bound. They rolled through their American Athletic Conference contests with limited challenges.
The obstacles between them and a record 11th consecutive Final Four berth include reigning national champion South Carolina and the Gamecocksâ fellow Southeastern Conference member Georgia. Also, Florida State - which fell a 3-point shot short of ending UConnâs winning streak 36 games earlier than it was a season ago - and fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member Duke, South Florida out of the AAC wants to be heard. And the Huskies refuse to look past the Red Flash to a potential second-round game with 2017 Cinderella Quinnipiac or another school from the Sunshine State, Miami.
Are they ready?
âTheyâre better at saying theyâre prepared,â UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. âYou donât know. Youâre not prepared to do something until itâs time to do it. Then you go, âWe were ready for this,â or âWe werenât.â We were standing here last year saying this team is prepared, and then we werenât. So where does this take us? We are a different team than we were last year. We are a little bit older. We are little bit more mature.
âMy thing is that if we can put ourselves in that same situation again, then weâll see whether weâre prepared or not. We have a long way to go between now and then.â
Seniors Williams and Kia Nurse own two national championship rings. Junior All-Americans Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson have one. Two key players - redshirt junior Azura Stevens and sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield are seeking their first, as is the rest of the roster.
No player has any without Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck being on the floor.
Without them the Huskies still were in a position, one successful possession away, from playing for a national championship a year ago. This new group seems to have what it takes to get over the top. They overcame double-digit deficits to beat Notre Dame, the No. 1 seed in Spokane (Washington), and Texas, the No. 2 seed in Kansas City. Theyâve been strong frontrunners
Are they ready?
âI think thereâs more of a seriousness and an understanding of how mature we have to be moving forward this year,â Samuelson said. âWe have to understand if any one of us is having an off game we have to find a way to fight through it. Last year, we had a lot of people have off games and we all kind of shut down and didnât contribute and thatâs why we lost. We have stuff we need to do and fix as we head into the Tournament.â
What UConn has added were things it really could have used against Mississippi State in Dallas.
A year ago in overtime of a tie game and with the opportunity to hold the ball for the final shot, Saniya Chong made her move to the basket too soon and her turnover gave the Bulldogs the possession that led to Morgan Williamâs winning hoop. In Dangerfield, the Huskies have a true point guard who has handled those situations in high school and as a sophomore at UConn has shown the ability to come through in the clutch.
A year ago, Williams at 5-foot-11 had to defend 6-7 Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan instead of an overwhelmed Natalie Butler. In Stevens, the Huskies have size and a player who can be a force under the basket offensively and defensively.
âWe have a lot of different strengths than last year,â Samuelson said. âZ means a lot to our team, and Crystal has grown a lot as a player. We feel more comfortable together on the court.â
The formula has worked so far. UConn hopes it has six more wins it, but is taking it one game at a time.
âThatâs something this program knows how to do better than anyone else in the country,â Williams said. âIf we look ahead to another team and we lose then weâre done.â
Are they ready? The Huskies are ready to find out.