Imani Boyette sat, largely motionless, reddened eyes looking straight ahead. Her Texas Longhorns had just lost to the Connecticut Huskies in the Elite Eight, 86-65. It was the end of a remarkable season and Boyette's fine college career. It was also the second straight year in which Boyette's season had ended at the hands of the Huskies. Last time, the margin of victory was 51.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has often said that his Huskies aren't playing against the other team, that they are playing against themselves. The same, then, is true of their opponents, the 38 teams who went down to defeat. They weren't so much trying to beat a historically great team as they were trying to present their best selves in the process. They had no chance of victory if they didn't bring their best, although their chances weren't really much better if they did.
Even teams led by future WNBA first-round picks like Boyette, or teams that had conquered the rest of the NCAA field like Syracuse, wound up on the wrong end of massively one-sided defeats as Connecticut blazed a trail to its fourth championship in four seasons. No team has ever done that, and no team this season came close to topping the Huskies' senior trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck. Those Huskies beat the Orange, 82-51, on Tuesday night, to win that fourth straight championship. The game wasn't even really that close.
Syracuse's Brittney Sykes couldn't beat them, not any more than anyone else in women's college basketball could have. But the relentlessly tough guard out of Newark did at least manage to figure out the right way to lose to UConn.
After answering questions at the postgame podium, Sykes took a long, slow walk down the corridors of Bankers Life Arena, eventually ending up in the visitors' locker room. Weary from a full season of drives and spills, she asked, "You mind if I sit down?" No one did, and she wearily settled into a chair in front of her locker, one leg extended. Her team had been routed, but she had started to find perspective on it before the game even ended, while standing on the sideline. The realization came as the confetti began to fall and both pep bands began to play.
"I was just taking in those last few seconds on the clock to realize what we've accomplished this year," Sykes said. "You see the clock winding down, and you realize that you lost the game, but at the same time you think in a positive mindset, too—that gives you ammunition to get back to that spot. And we're going to forever remember this feeling. And next season we want to get back here so we can change that feeling and know how it feels to win a national championship." Sykes, it should be said, was the exception. It's really hard to take the long view as a player who is used to winning, and has just lost by so much, so quickly.
A week earlier, Boyette captured what the stakes were for teams facing Connecticut. "Any time you play one of the greatest teams, you know what you measure up against," she said. "You see how far you have to go or where you're measuring up. Last year, I think they put the hammer on us because we gave up. We gave in when we kind of hit resistance.... And that's when they go on the runs. That's when they dial in and put the foot down."
For all the conversation about the Huskies as some kind of reflection of the talent distribution in women's basketball, it simply isn't so. Parity increases with each passing year, as of course it must—not because of some moral argument but because the natural outgrowth of greater athletic opportunity for women, or any group, is more athletes within that group. And yet, this Connecticut team is an outlier within women's basketball, within even Connecticut women's basketball, which has reigned more often than any other team in the sport, all since 1995. They're the best team that has ever been, in the best program the sport has ever seen, and probably in the sport, full stop.
The women's game has never seen someone as capable of doing so many things so well as Breanna Stewart; she was the most valuable offensive player and the most valuable defensive player in the country this year. In the conversation about greatest Connecticut player ever—Stewart, Diana Taurasi, and Maya Moore are the three most common contenders—some point out how infrequently Stewart has had to carry her team, as if an ability to destroy opponents early on is somehow an argument against greatness.
Stewart also hasn't had to carry her team because she has running mates like Moriah Jefferson, who can make a credible claim on being the best point guard in the history of the same program that produced Sue Bird. There's also Morgan Tuck, a rugged, versatile forward who has decided to start making threes at a Steph Curry clip. Really. Just decided. "So at practice, I don't know, two weeks ago, whenever it was, I just spent some time just [saying] 'Tuck, if you're going to shoot those, you've got to make them,'" Auriemma said after Connecticut's 80-51 win over Oregon State, a team that would have been a legitimate title contender in virtually any other season, in the Final Four. "She has a great answer: 'I know.' That's it. 'I know.' And she would just stand there and knock them in one after another after another. And I could tell, when we left Connecticut, the bigger the game, the more she makes."
Stewart is the most valuable player in program history, statistically. But you can easily make a case for Jefferson and Tuck somewhere in the top ten, or higher. This is more Connecticut greatness, sure, and it's a happy accident that all three happen to be the same class, and then played together for four years, and did so for Auriemma, who routinely maximizes every player he gets. But the team is somehow more than the sum of all that. They were as untouchable on Tuesday night, in the biggest game of their season, as they were all year.
To understand how futile it is to formulate a game plan against Connecticut, consider the approach that a deep and talented Oregon State team adopted on Sunday. Morgan Tuck is a consensus top-five WNBA pick this spring if she comes out, and it is expected she will. Oregon State chose to leave her completely open—she did not even draw a defender on many plays. The idea was to focus on Stewart, but Tuck sank four three-pointers and helped the Huskies out to a 47-26 lead by halftime; Stewart had just two shots in the entire first half.
The effect of going up against such an unstoppable machine could be gleaned at a single glance at the two Oregon stars, Ruth Hamblin and Jamie Weisner. Like Boyette, you'll see Hamblin and Weisner at a WNBA arena near you soon enough. But there came a time, early in the fourth quarter, when Hamblin jostled inside, pushed and prodded backup Connecticut center Natalie Butler, and finally, with seconds left on the shot clock, got her shot away, into the rim, circling almost endlessly before dropping. Hamblin looked up at the scoreboard—80-49. She just shook her head, as if amazed that so much hard work led to that result.
Hamblin is a bruising 6'6'', impossible to stop until Sunday night, and Weisner did it all—facilitator, shooter, a combo guard and elite defender. They played their game, and they were never really in it. "I would say it's even an honor to play against them," a beaming Weisner had said from the podium the day before the game, still in her practice warm-ups. "In 20 years, I can tell my kids that I played against that UConn team. But, yeah, we're going to go into it very prepared and fearless."
Connecticut held her to 4-for-15 shooting. A day earlier, she'd talked about enjoying every moment. But it is impossible for someone like Weisner, wildly successful at every level and at the end of a remarkable season at Oregon State, from taking pleasure in what happens when you play Connecticut. Eyes red after the game, she could only marvel at the performance.
"They can hit from everywhere," Weisner said. "People come in off the bench and there's no lag. They expose every weakness and make you pay for it, force you into things you don't want to do. And then offensively, I mean, they have weapons everywhere, every position."
And so it went again on Tuesday night. Syracuse led the nation in steals and turnover margin, relying on threes to set the defense. They'd taken 30 a game and hadn't made many of them—less than 30 percent during the regular season—but increased that rate to nearly 40 percent in tournament wins over one-seed South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington to advance beyond the expectations their four-seed suggested. They were underdogs and understood as much. There is a template here—there was Villanova over Georgetown in 1985, so there was hope—but there was also the reality of what they were up against.
And then it was happening, and it was clear there would be no upset. Some early shots fell for Stewart, and Connecticut slowed Syracuse's offensive motion to a virtual stop. Syracuse's press relies on made shots to be effective, and for the first few minutes Syracuse's score remained stubbornly stuck at zero. The Orange later found their footing a bit, made a pair of threes—Brianna Butler, their most prolific long-distance shooter, stepped back and created her own space, then buried one from 25—and for a moment, a close game seemed possible. Connecticut only led 25-13, and the Orange press was packing passing lanes.
With seconds to go in the quarter, Moriah Jefferson was hounded by two defenders. The press was working, and then suddenly it wasn't—Jefferson, quicker than everyone, turned a corner and fired, falling backwards onto the ground as the crowd gasped and then laughed. The ball slid through the net, and the entire arena understood that the game had ended. Or rather, the parallel games began.
Syracuse's spirit didn't wane over the remainder of the game, and they never submitted in the way so many teams have to the Huskies—an emphatic block from Sykes midway through the second quarter reiterated that, though Connecticut led 50-23 by halftime. A rare dry spell from Connecticut, punctuated by consecutive turnovers, and Syracuse cut the deficit to 60-43 with 2:02 left in the third. A 16-0 run against the greatest team in the history of the sport won't soon be forgotten. But, again—the buzz in the crowd, the anguished expression on Stewart's face as she called timeout—this all came in a game Connecticut still led by 17.
Soon enough, Connecticut recovered its equilibrium. The three seniors didn't so much as smile until Auriemma took them out with a few minutes to go in the game, and only then did they let themselves feel like they'd won.
Long after the game, Brittney Sykes didn't sound like someone who'd lost. She credited Stewart, her friend since AAU days, and rattled off Connecticut's accomplishments. "I'm proud of them," she said.
"Everybody's different," she continued. "I know for me, losses hurt, but if you hold onto them too long, you won't learn from it, grow from it. You always keep that feeling in your back pocket. You don't want to leave that floor thinking, 'What could I have done more?' I don't think anybody in this locker room walked off that floor thinking they could've done more. One team has to lose. And it just happened to be us."