It’s not just that UConn seems to have many of its games won before tipoff. It’s that the Huskies seem to have the “W” just as soon as the schedule is printed.
Opposing coaches watch film, do the scout, and run their players through practice before facing UConn, just like going against any other team. Except it’s not. You wonder how many coaches – for instance, one of a program that had lost its last 27 in a row to the Huskies – could truly keep 100 percent faith that this preparation really mattered.
Yet that’s what being a coach is: Believing you always prepare to win because that possibility always exists. Even if you are about the only one on Earth who believes it.
Now look at this score: St. John’s 57, No. 2 UConn 56. Coach Kim Barnes Arico and her Red Storm players may wake up Sunday and initially think they just had a very pleasant dream, kind of like those where you possess an inexplicable but astonishing ability to fly.
However, it really did happen Saturday. And even more astounding, it happened in Storrs, Conn., at Gampel Pavilion. The last time an unranked foe walked out of that building with a victory over UConn’s women was St. Patrick’s Day, 1993.
The No. 1 movie at the box office then was “Groundhog Day,” a film that sums up what it soon would become like for most teams to play UConn. They’d repeat the same experience over and over and over and over against the Huskies. At home, on the road, at a neutral site, UConn would win. Year after year.
That last unranked opponent to win at Gampel was Louisville, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A lot of teams, in fact, beat UConn that season: 10, with Miami doing it twice. The Huskies were 18-11 in 1992-93, the last season that UConn wasn’t a powerhouse.
The Huskies subsequently have won seven NCAA titles, and the closest thing they’ve had to a “bad” year was 2004-05, when they went 25-8. They still won the Big East tournament and advanced to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 then.
A strong case can be made that every year since 1993, UConn either won the NCAA title or had at least a good chance to do so. Even in the Sweet 16 seasons of 1999 (when they lost then-freshman guard Sue Bird to an ACL in December ‘98) and 2005 (when they were adjusting after Diana Taurasi graduated).
The most amazing thing about Geno Auriemma’s program has been that the Huskies have so consistently shown up at full force for so many years no matter the opponent. Through many different teams with different dominant personalities, UConn has maintained the “you snooze, you lose” mentality, even against opponents the Huskies really could have beaten in their sleep.
St. John’s wasn’t one of those, though. The Red Storm now is 18-8 overall and 10-3 in the Big East. The weirdest loss for St. John’s this season was 63-56 at Harvard on Dec. 22. It was especially perplexing considering that on Dec. 11, St. John’s actually had made Baylor sweat a bit in what ended up being a 73-59 Bears’ victory.
St. John’s has come back from the loss to Harvard, though, to win 11 of its next 13, with the only losses to Marquette and Notre Dame.
The Irish, meanwhile, had been knocked off last Sunday by West Virginia, as the past month or so has been a time of “You’ve got to be kidding,” upsets.
Crazy stuff, like Maryland losing at home to Virginia Tech on Jan. 26. Or Kentucky, while on top of the SEC, losing to the league’s last-place team, Alabama, on Thursday for the Wildcats’ third defeat in a row.
But UConn losing at home to an unranked team? There are unexpected upsets … and then there’s just daydreaming. It must have seemed like the latter for any St. John’s fan. The Red Storm had lost 27 in a row to UConn; their last victory over the Huskies was in the aforementioned 1993 season, on Jan. 6 in New York.
It’s not like anything is needed to get across the point of how distant that is, save simple math: 19 years – as long or longer than today’s college freshmen have been alive.
Yet consider these hoops facts from back then to reiterate how far in the past we’re going to get to the most recent time before Saturday that St. John’s got to celebrate after meeting UConn. In 1993:
*- Sheryl Swoopes was a college senior who would take Texas Tech all the way to an NCAA title.
*-Texas Tech’s national-semifinal victory over Vanderbilt on April 3 wasn’t seen in its entirety by local television viewers in the Women’s Final Four city of Atlanta. The event was carried by CBS then in a Saturday-Sunday format, and Atlanta’s CBS affiliate had a Saturday afternoon news show it didn’t want to pre-empt for the Vandy-Tech game.
*-An Ohio State freshman named Katie Smith would have been the star of the NCAA championship game … if Swoopes hadn’t been there.
*-UConn was led by Rebecca Lobo, a talented sophomore still coming into her own.
*-Gail Goestenkors was in her first season as a head coach, with Duke going 12-15.
*-Kim Mulkey was seven years away from becoming a head coach.
In regard to the latter, Mulkey’s Baylor team cut it a little too close for comfort against Texas Tech on Saturday, almost giving us the insanity of the Nos. 1 and 2 teams losing on the same night.
But Baylor held off Tech, the only Big 12 team that has given the Bears any real trouble this season. Baylor won by eight points at Tech on Jan. 18; a month later, on Saturday, it was a five-point Bears’ victory.
A lot of emotion – some of it not very positive - has surrounded the Tech-Baylor game the last couple of years, going back to the Brittney Griner/Jordan Barncastle incident in 2010. We won’t rehash it here, except to say that even though this was a home contest for Baylor, there was some concernt that it could be a “danger” game for the Bears.
But who thought UConn would be in any real danger at home against St. John’s on Saturday? Just maybe Auriemma did. Last Monday after UConn’s 73-55 victory at Oklahoma, Auriemma talked about how his group had looked “mortal,” and said that was all part of a national puzzle that indicated parity in at least some form.
“I like to think that the game is getting more parity every year, although it’s hard to see. It’s like global warming. [People say] ‘There’s global warming out there.’
‘Really? I don’t see it.’
‘Well, it’s there, trust me.’
“That’s kind of where we are right now.”
Like most things, that’s been a process. When St. John’s hired Barnes Arico as head coach in May 2002, most fans nationally didn’t even notice. St. John’s essentially was a non-entity in the sport, having gone to the NCAA tournament just three times, all in the 1980s.
Barnes Arico wasn’t trying to restore a culture at St. John’s, she was trying to build one. In 2010, the Red Storm knocked hard on the door of the NCAA Sweet 16, but fell to Florida State 66-65 in overtime. Last year, they lost in the second round again, this time to Stanford.
Young players _ such as Da’Shena Stevens, Shenneika Smith, Eugeneia McPherson and Nadira McKenith _ have become veterans now.
Saturday, it was Smith’s 3-pointer with 8 seconds left, off a pass from McKenith, that sealed the victory and gave the Red Storm a chance to celebrate something none of them had experienced before. And a win over UConn is a very nice plum to have in your “body of work” for the selection committee’s review.
Will this loss hurt UConn? That’s unlikely. It will give Huskies fans something different to full-bore obsess over – gee, maybe the team does miss Maya Moore just a little, huh? _ and it will irritate the players, who want no part of losing anywhere, but especially not at home.
Saturday again proved, though, it really can happen to anybody.