It doesn't take much effort to look beyond the University of Connecticut and see the remarkable yet expected growth of women's basketball. It was visible right on the Huskies’ home floor at Gampel Pavilion Monday night, as the No. 1 seed took on another one of the Nutmeg State’s own in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Spoiler alert: Quinnipiac, one year removed from a Sweet 16 run, did not travel 55 miles to the game’s most hostile road venue and shock the world. The Huskies are better and bigger, and they sport a roster with approximately a half-dozen future WNBA players. But the Bobcats didn’t come in and embarrass themselves, either.
Twenty years ago, the story was a little different. In 1998, Tricia Fabbri’s Quinnipiac team had just made the transition to Division I, and she wanted to see how they stacked up against the best. So the Bobcats scheduled a game against the Huskies. UConn blew the doors off, winning 117-20. It is still UConn’s largest margin of victory. It will likely remain so, too, because the talent pool in the women’s game is deeper than it’s ever been, spreading the wealth beyond the traditional top teams. Even conferences like Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference are home to significant talent, as Quinnipiac, its reigning champion, has demonstrated.
Quinnipiac didn't need gimmicks to win their way into the Sweet 16 last season, nor to beat Miami (Florida) in the first round this year. Fabbri's team runs nine-deep with players who can run the break, but her biggest advantage is homegrown: her daughter, Carly, is the kind of point guard who could have played for UConn back when that program was just getting off the ground, with skills and basketball IQ far outpacing her size.
An ever-expanding women's basketball landscape means more Division I spots for someone like Carly Fabbri, who can not only play but lead a team deep into March. Fabbri shot better than 42 percent from three as a senior this season, topped 27 in assist percentage, and frequently led the team herself in timeouts, with that same intense expression as her mother. She's essentially the Jen Rizzotti of our time, and you can expect her on a sideline someday, just like Rizzotti, if she wants it.
The Bobcats declined to shoot 57 threes and hope enough of them went in, as St. Francis (Pennsylvania) did on Saturday in a blowout so apparently offensive it led ESPN's own Darren Rovell to define the entire sport on the basis of a single game. Instead, they held UConn to a season-low 71 points. They turned the ball over just seven times, fewer turnovers than any Connecticut opponent this year.
And yet, the Bobcats still fell, 71-46. So we are left to consider Quinnipiac's arc, and the continued growth of the game that hasn't yet toppled the Huskies. At the same time, also consider how no men’s teams managed to make mortals of John Wooden and UCLA at approximately the same point in NCAA men's basketball history: This marks Year 36 since the NCAA women's tournament began; Wooden won his tenth and final title in 1975, 36 years after the NCAA men's tourney debuted.
The women's game is reaching a point where merely citing Connecticut's excellence as Bad For The Game is telling more on yourself than anything else. People like Tricia Fabbri and Carly Fabbri have made certain of it. Quinnipiac is better than they were last year, and miles beyond where they were back in 1998 when they lost by 97 to Connecticut. They lost last year to the eventual national champion, South Carolina, and may well have done so again this year. And they are one of many such programs making strides. The top is getting closer to Connecticut, and the depth keeps on expanding.
As Fabbri played the final minutes of her excellent career Monday night, Central Michigan went up big on Ohio State, and Buffalo took a commanding lead over Florida State. A generation of women who grew up watching UConn has dispersed across the country, giving more programs than ever a chance to win.
“This is the mecca of women's basketball,” Carly Fabbri said, sitting at the postgame podium Monday night. “Growing up here, everyone talks about UConn. But we had a bunch of Quinnipiac fans supporting us. Even today, we had a big chunk of supporters here.”
Carly Fabbri came out of the game with 1:42 left in the fourth, and she embraced her mom on the sideline, both of them fighting back tears. An entertaining player, another great college career, and a program now defined. A cheer of “Carly Fabbri-clap-clap-clapclapclap” sprang up from the two filled sections of Bobcat fans.
“It was almost a storybook ending to have with your daughter, to lead a team into the Sweet 16, to beat Miami again, to play in front of 8,500 people,” Tricia Fabbri said, and she pushed through tears once more. “I just hugged her and said, 'Great job.'”
UConn moves forward. Quinnipiac, and the women's game, too.