STORRS, Conn. — Generally one play doesn’t summarize a game, yet it did Monday night at Gampel Pavilion when the UConn women’s basketball team apparently was supposed to be threatened by undefeated and top-ranked South Carolina.
With just over 11 minutes remaining and the No. 2 Huskies on a fast break, All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis received a trailing pass from point guard Moriah Jefferson and found tiny point guard Tiffany Mitchell defending her.
Mosqueda-Lewis used her bulk, flicked Mitchell to the floor like a mosquito and then drained a 3-pointer.
It extended UConn’s lead to 17 points and cemented the Huskies’ status as the best and most dominant program in women’s college basketball. South Carolina was hoping to unseat UConn but looked lost in the significance of the moment, and was chased out of Gampel, 87-62.
A handful of programs have challenged UConn’s reign, most notably Baylor. After Tennessee lost its luster following the departure of legendary coach Pat Summitt, the Huskies have lacked a major rival. If a potential rival does emerge, what happened to South Carolina is usually the result.
With the popularity of basketball growing exponentially at the girls’ level, there is a plethora of talent across the country. Hall of Fame Huskies coach Geno Auriemma is in the enviable position of choosing from the most accomplished players in the country and then molding them into championship contenders.
Monday night was almost unfair because the two-time defending national champions were accustomed to games of this magnitude. Nationally televised. A packed house. A staunch opponent.
Since Auriemma knows each of his recruits will play at UConn for four years — unless they transfer or quit — the coach can balance his roster with talent. Mosqueda-Lewis is a senior. Breanna Stewart, a skilled forward who may be the most versatile player in the country, is a junior. Forward Morgan Tuck is a sophomore.
Just one player on the roster is from Connecticut. The Huskies are a collection of prep standouts from every region and Auriemma’s responsibility is to ensure they maintain the program’s rich tradition.
“I tell kids all of the time when we are recruiting players this is what they want. This is the game that they want to play in, a game like this,” Auriemma said. “I guess this was a slow night in the sports world because I guess this was the biggest thing on television tonight. The point of coming to Connecticut is to play in these games. Whether it’s January, February, March, April, it doesn’t matter, these are the games you come to Connecticut for, these are the games we practice for, games like today.”
South Carolina’s emergence and the fact it was ranked first despite a schedule that only included five ranked teams in its 22 wins likely offended Auriemma and his program. There has been an ongoing search for a primary competitor to UConn, and while Baylor won a title with Brittney Griner, the Huskies have maintained lasting power, winning nine titles in the past 20 years.
What is more entertaining and compelling about women’s college basketball than its male counterpart is elite programs have no issue scheduling each other for nonconference games, especially during conference season.
Could you imagine Kentucky playing Duke, or Wisconsin facing Virginia deep into February in a game that could damage their NCAA Tournament seedings?
The top women’s teams have to match up because it makes the game more exciting for regular basketball fans. There’s a reason this game was nationally televised on a Monday night.
Even though South Carolina had breezed through its previous 22 games with the second-ranked scoring defense in the country and a scoring margin that was a whopping 28.1 points, the significance of such feats was not completely apparent until the Gamecocks faced UConn.
UConn’s 88-86 early-season overtime loss at Stanford, which was ranked sixth at the time, was a blemish on the record of this edition of the Huskies women’s team. Pre-conference games for UConn are generally considered no more intense than scrimmages, and the defeat appeared to open the opportunity for a new national champion.
Coach Dawn Staley has upgraded the South Carolina program over her six years in Columbia and the Gamecocks were coming in as one of UConn’s newest challengers. South Carolina has advanced to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Staley after reaching just eight in the previous 30 years.
Staley didn’t appear shocked after the game. She understood this was a possibility.
“This is absolutely a part of our journey,” she said. “To accomplish some milestones we have this particular year, that’s a part of our journey. I think each and every time we need to learn a lesson, we’ve been faced [with challenges]. This is no different. This isn’t a destination game. We have a lot of basketball left to play and the only way that this works for us is if we use it and learn from it.”
But the thought of someone unseating a two-time national champion in mid-February is laughable. The 23-1 Huskies are at the point where they are seeking challenges. Hearing Auriemma constantly berate them in practice has to serve as motivation, and that’s especially the case when an undefeated opponent makes the trip to snowy Storrs.
UConn’s challenger will have to come with much more fortitude than South Carolina did to make this season more interesting.
“If we could have a schedule where we play one through 25 in the Top 25, we would love to have that,” Stewart said. “We weren’t in need of a statement win. We’ve already had some statement wins. We’re UConn. We want to be the No. 1 team in the country. We’re still here and we don’t want people to forget about us.”