Hard to choose, with 11 national title winners: Ranking the 10 all-time best UConn women's basketball teams

Published on Monday, 23 March 2020 20:32
Written by Carl Adamec

Journal Inquirer

With 11 national championship banners hanging in the Gampel Pavilion rafters, it’s almost unfair to limit the program’s best to a top 10 list. Imagine telling a player on the team that won it all, “Sorry, you guys were just not good enough.”

How about the other nine teams that went to the NCAA Final Four - three of which were unbeaten entering the tournament? Nope, you should not have lost.

To that end, we have put together a list of the top 10 teams in UConn history, with a few details about their accomplishments:

No. 10

2001: What could have been - The Huskies entered as the reigning national champion with two first-team All-Americans among their returning five starters. Oh, and they added the No. 1 high school recruit in the country - Diana Taurasi.

“We’re all playing for second,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said at the 2000 Final Four.

The way the season started with a 99-70 rout of No. 3 Georgia, it sure looked that way. But what had run so smoothly the year before started hitting rough patches, climaxed by a 16-point loss at Notre Dame on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that vaulted the Irish to No. 1. Then on Feb. 1, All-American Svetlana Abrosimova was lost for the season with a torn ligament in her left foot suffered in a loss to Tennessee. All-American Shea Ralph suffered an ACL tear in her left knee in the rematch against Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament final on March 6. Still the Huskies found their way back to the Final Four semifinals and led the Irish by 15 early in the second half. But the eventual champions blew away UConn by 30 the rest of the way to end the Huskies year at 32-3 and with questions of what could have been.

No. 9

2003: ‘We have Diana …’ - With four of the top six picks in the 2002 WNBA Draft having moved on, this seemed to be a year of growing pains for the Huskies. But UConn had Taurasi.

The winning continued with Taurasi coming through each and every time it was needed. Against Tennessee on Jan. 4, she hit a 60-footer at halftime, a 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds to force overtime, and a shot in the lane in the final minute to give UConn a one-point win. On Feb. 1, she helped the Huskies build a 26-point lead at top-ranked Duke and they held on to take over the No. 1 spot in the polls.

The Huskies would break the NCAA record for longest winning streak, though it would end at 70 with a loss to Villanova in the Big East Tournament. But Taurasi, playing with ankle and back issues, willed herself and her team back. They got to the Final Four in Atlanta and rallied past Texas in the semifinals. In the final against Tennessee, Taurasi had 28 points and Ann Strother’s free throws with 21 seconds to go iced a 73-68 win.

No. 8

2004: ‘… and you don’t” - After becoming the first to win the title without a senior on the roster, UConn and Taurasi were back bidding to match Tennessee’s three straight national championships.

The journey started well enough. But on Jan. 3, Duke rallied from a 20-point deficit to win 68-67 on Jessica Foley’s 3-pointer at the buzzer and end UConn’s 69-game home winning streak. Ten days later, the Huskies were hammered at Notre Dame. They got back on track, including a win at No. 1 Tennessee, but were beaten again at Villanova. Then with the Big East Tournament being played in Hartford for the first time, they lost to Boston College in the semifinals and were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA East Regional for only the second time in 11 years.

But as Geno Auriemma had been saying for two seasons, “We have Diana and you don’t.” Taking advantage of playing games in Bridgeport and Hartford, UConn rolled into the Final Four and took out gritty Minnesota with Lindsay Whalen in the semifinals. With a chance to join the UConn men as champions, the Huskies handled Tennessee 70-61 to send Taurasi out as - what she’s been her whole career - a winner.

No. 7

2000: The Backdoor Palooza - They had split in the regular season, each winning on the other’s home court. The UConn-Tennessee rivalry was hot and they would meet in Philadelphia for the title.

It was no contest. In a game that the star of their 1995 championship team, Rebecca Lobo, would call “The Backdoor Palooza” the Huskies routed the Lady Vols 71-52. UConn’s execution was crisp as it would get backdoor layup after backdoor layup, often taking advantage of long-time nemesis Semeka Randall. After one play led to a layup, Auriemma pointed to his old high school coach Buddy Gardler in the crowd to, “Thank him for teaching me that.” Tennessee had no answer and the best coach Pat Summitt could do at halftime was draw a heart on the board in the Lady Vols’ locker room. Ralph was the Most Outstanding Player and Kelly Schumacher set a record with nine blocked shots.

UConn finished 7-1 against the other Final Four teams and went 36-1 while beating eight of the other 15 Sweet 16 teams during the season.

No. 6

2014: 40 for 40 - About the only thing that could stop these Huskies would be injuries. They’d prove early that even that wouldn’t matter as they won at No. 8 Maryland by 17 and at No. 13 Penn State by 19 in November with just seven healthy scholarship players.

With Player of the Year Breanna Stewart and All-American seniors Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley leading the way, UConn rolled through the regular season and its first American Athletic Conference Tournament unbeaten and unchallenged. UConn never trailed by more than seven points all season It wasn’t until its NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game against Brigham Young in Lincoln, Nebraska, that it would trail in the second half and even then it won by 19. The Huskies would beat Stanford in the national semifinals and rout Notre Dame 79-58 in the final to finish 40-0. After the game, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said UConn looked like the LeBron James-led Miami Heat.

The win also marked the second time (and the only two times in NCAA history) the same school won the men’s and women’s titles.

No. 5

2009: Run away Renee - When Renee Montgomery signed her letter of intent with UConn, the Huskies were the three-time reigning national champions. But as the All-American point guard entered her senior year, she was still seeking her first.

She would not be denied. Teaming with Player of the Year Maya Moore and All-American Tina Charles, she made a statement with 30 points and 13 assists against Oklahoma in Game 5 of the season. The Huskies would go on to defeat Louisville by 22 in the national championship game in St. Louis to cap a perfect 39-0 season.

UConn trailed only once in the second half, by two to Notre Dame with 16 minutes left. After Auriemma told Montgomery, “We need a run,” during a time out, she led the Huskies on a 22-1 burst that put the Irish away. Six weeks later, she’d have her title.

No. 4

2010: Perfect X2 - The Huskies had not one, but two, national Player of the Year winners on their roster. Charles would raise her game to sweep most awards, including the Associated Press Player of the Year, the Naismith Trophy, and the Wooden Award. Moore, meanwhile, won the second of her three straight Wade Trophy honors.

There were challenges along the way but they entered the final game against Stanford at the Alamodome in San Antonio unbeaten. And then the Huskies would set a Final Four record for futility with 12 first-half points. But a Moore-led charge would quickly erase the eight-point deficit from the break and a pair of 3-pointers by Caroline Doty, playing with a stomach flu, pushed the lead to 16. It would hold on 53-47.

UConn was the first (and only) with back-to-back perfect seasons.

No. 3

1995: 35-0 - With its starting lineup returning and the USA Today high school Player of the Year coming in, expectations were through the roof for the Huskies. Led by national Player of the Year Lobo and All-American Jennifer Rizzotti, they surpassed them to set off a frenzy in the state that they had never seen before and have not seen since 10 national championships later.

UConn became No. 1 for the first time thanks to its Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Battle of the Best” win over Tennessee and reached the Final Four for the second time by erasing a nine-point deficit to beat Virginia at Gampel Pavilion.

After routing Stanford in the semifinals, the Huskies had a rematch with the Lady Vols on April 2. With Lobo, Rizzotti, and Nykesha Sales in foul trouble, UConn trailed by six at halftime and by nine following a Michelle Marciniak three but rallied. A Jamelle Elliott layup tied it. Rizzotti then grabbed a long rebound and raced the length of the court - turning Marciniak inside-out - to give UConn the lead for good with 1:51 left. Carla Berube’s free throws iced the 70-64 win.

The next day, fans met the Huskies at the airport and lined the road as their bus returned to Storrs where they welcomed at a packed Gampel Pavilion. An estimated crowd of 100,000 honored them at a parade in Hartford. It’s not been the same since.

No. 2

2016: History - Stewart came to UConn saying that she wanted to win four national championships. She achieved that goal and the Huskies made history when they pounded Syracuse 82-51 in Indianapolis for the unprecedented fourth consecutive title.

Stewart was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player four times, though she still says that teammate Moriah Jefferson should have been given the honor in 2015. The North Syracuse, New York native won her third straight Player of the Year award while Jefferson won the Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation’s top point guard for the second consecutive year. They were joined on the WBCA All-America team by classmate Morgan Tuck and they would become the first teammates to go 1-2-3 in the WNBA Draft.

The senior class would finish 151-5 with wins in 122 of its last 123 games, while also producing the first 75 of the Huskies’ record 111-game winning streak. No one’s done it better for four years.

No. 1

2002: Best ever - But for one year, no one has done it better than the 39-0 Huskies of 2002.

They are the only team in UConn history to never trail in the second half. They were outscored in only one half - the second of a 21-point win in the NCAA Elite Eight by Old Dominion - all season. When challenged in the national championship game by Oklahoma, they received a three-point play from Taurasi and a perfect effort from Player of the Year Sue Bird at the foul line (she didn’t miss a single free throw in nine postseason games) to secure an 82-70 victory at the Alamodome.

Later that month, Bird (1), Swin Cash (2), Asjha Jones (4), and Tamika Williams (6) were among the first six picks in the WNBA Draft. Bird, Cash, and Jones are in a group of 11 that have won a NCAA championship, a WNBA title, and Olympic and FIBA World Cup gold medals. Cash will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June and was nominated for the Naismith Memorial Hall in her first year of eligibility. Bird and Taurasi are locks for the Hall after retirement.

Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Monday, 23 March 2020 20:32. Updated: Monday, 23 March 2020 20:34.