Throughout the 2016-17 season, as the University of Connecticut women's basketball team steamrolled through the most difficult schedule in the country and surpassed the all-time record for most consecutive wins, coach Geno Auriemma maintained his steadfast belief that his team would, at some point, lose. He didn't just seem to think it would happen, though: he sounded like he wanted it.
Then came a Final Four matchup against Mississippi State, one in which Connecticut was heavily favored, and suddenly Auriemma's prophecy came true. Auriemma believes that the fact that they hadn't lost in the past is what caused his team to fall short that night—a reality brought home for him during that 66-64 loss to the Bulldogs.
"For me, probably the collective look on their faces during one of the timeouts where I think they sensed that this is different," Auriemma said, recalling the signature moment for him from that night in Dallas. "This is not like every other game we've played and you could see the look in their eyes like this moment might be a little too big for us. It was written all over their body language."
In many ways, the 2016-17 Huskies were burdened with history as much as supported by it. Most of the 111 straight victories between a November 2014 loss to Stanford and the epic upset by Morgan William and Mississippi State in the 2017 Final Four were racked up by a team led by a trio of now-WNBA players: Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck, all of whom graduated after winning a fourth straight NCAA title in 2016 (and got picked 1-2-3 in the WNBA Draft).
In Stewart's opinion, the reason Auriemma talked up a loss so often is that it is his best available tool for motivation.
"Coach Auriemma uses losses to motivate us even more," Stewart said in a text message. "He never lets us forget about them. Throughout the entire postseason last year and into the preseason this upcoming year I'm sure it is something he keeps harping on to make sure the team is more prepared the next time they step on the court and make it so it doesn't happen again. The loss to Mississippi State is going to have them coming back even better and even hungrier than last year."
Notably, last season's Huskies didn't lack for talent, nor for results. Connecticut finished first in the country in points per possession, and third in defensive points per possession, all while facing the toughest schedule in the country and endless attention to their win streak. The team's top four players—Gabby Williams, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Napheesa Collier—are all expected to be first round picks once they reach the WNBA Draft (the first two in 2018, the latter two in 2019).
Gabby Williams hasn't forgotten what it felt like for a moment to see Morgan William's shot launch just above her outstretched hand, ending the Connecticut season two games ahead of schedule. And she agrees with Auriemma, it is just what Connecticut needed.
"Because how can you tell somebody that they're doing something wrong, but they keep getting the right result," Williams said at media day as Sunday's season opener approaches. "So he's like look it we, of course we did it wrong because look at the result we got so it's tangible proof. And I'm hoping that it gives us some more edge. I think that's something that we lacked last year, was just having an edge. So hopefully it makes us a little more rough this year."
Williams said she sees it manifesting itself in practice already—Auriemma will tell Nurse or talented sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield they never do something."And their like, 'Okay, well then watch me do this.' And I'm like, 'Oh! Alright.' Yeah hit 'em back. It's little stuff like that."
While few saw Connecticut as likely to suffer a defeat last season, it was generally understood to be the best shot any team would have at the Huskies for a while, The big four return a year older, as does Dangerfield. Talented 6'6 center Azura Stevens transferred from Duke, providing size last year's Huskies did not possess, while a top-rated recruiting class led by ESPNW's number one in the country, guard/forward Megan Walker, gives Auriemma numbers he didn't have to throw at people last year.
Add in the loss Auriemma believed was necessary for team growth, and the sense is that the South Carolina title last year was a brief interlude, rather than a changing of the guard. Not that Auriemma would mind if it happens again.
"I think what happened last season is exactly what needed to happen," Auriemma said. "Not because we need any extra motivation to win. I just think we need it to lift all the stuff we've been carrying around with us the last couple of years and just play free and clear and be like everybody else, and understand that losing is not the end of the world. We've created an environment, unfortunately, that whenever we lose it's 'What did Connecticut do wrong?' That's not fair to anybody. My players, the other players, the other coaching staff. Oh, the only time Connecticut loses is when they play bad? We get no credit for playing great? We need to put that to rest if we're going to become legitimate in a lot of people's eyes. We have to lose, and that losing is healthy for everybody."