UConn ready to rebound from heartbreaking finish last year

The night was Friday, March 31. The setting was the 2017 NCAA Women’s Final Four at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The top-seeded UConn Huskies, winners of 111 straight games and 11 national championships, were playing No. 2 Mississippi State for the right to move onto the National Championship game and face South Carolina.

With the game tied at 64-64 in overtime, the Bulldogs had the ball with 11 seconds left. After getting the ball across half court and being unable to get a good shot against UConn’s defense, the ball was in the hands of Mississippi State junior guard Morgan William with four seconds left. She drove to her right, stopped at the right elbow and put up this shot with a second remaining:

With that shot, the Huskies’ historic win streak was over. And their hopes of winning a fifth straight national title were crushed.

While that game and shot happened more than six months ago, the loss still sticks with this year’s Huskies squad that will begin the 2017-18 season as the number one team in the nation.

[More from Excelle Sports: UConn Huskies picked to win American Athletic Conference in preseason poll]

“I think we’re using it as a motivation,” senior guard/forward Gabby Williams said. “We’re trying to use it to make ourselves better this year and keep pushing and fight through the things that we did last year or maybe we don’t think about as much. The best way to get better at anything is to get experience.”

As the preseason No. 1 team in the country for the 12th time in school history, the Huskies will be looking to bounce back from last year’s disappointing finish by capturing the school’s 12th national championship this year under Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma. The 63-year-old Auriemma believes that there is a benefit to beginning the season with a clean slate and without the pressures of continuing a historic win streak or repeating as national champions.

“I think we get a chance to start like most teams with no expectations from last year and no residue from previous years like we’ve had the last couple of years,” Auriemma said. “It’s refreshing. We don’t have to deal with that and I think that’s good. We can just talk about this year’s team, what we’re doing right now, who’s playing well, and who’s not playing well. It’s all about what we’re doing right now with this team.”

The Huskies return four starters from last year’s squad, including Williams. Williams was named to the AAC’s Preseason First Team after winning the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and earning a spot on the AAC First Team last year. She was also selected as an All-American after averaging 14.3 points per game and leading the team in assists (5.1 per game) and steals (100) last season.

Her fellow senior leader on the team is guard Kia Nurse, who was named to the conference preseason second team. Last year, Nurse averaged 12.7 points per game and led the team in both three-point percentage (46 percent) and free throw percentage (86 percent) as she was named to the AAC Second Team.

Having two senior leaders this year could be the key to the Huskies returning to the top of the women’s college basketball world, Auriemma said.

“Last year was the first time we had gone to the Final Four in a while where we didn’t have someone or two seniors who had been there and done that and had a lot of experience and were able to provide a steady hand,” Auriemma said. “It caught up to us at some point. It’s expected. Now, we have two seniors in Kia and Gabby. Gabby and Kia kind of set the tone for who we are and what we do and they each do it in their own way. Gabby is a little more quiet on the court, while Kia is a little more vocal and demonstrative.”

But the two players fans will be watching closely is the junior class duet of forward Napheesa Collier and guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson. Collier was selected in the preseason to repeat as the conference’s Player of the Year after sharing the honor with Samuelson last season. Both were named to the AAC Preseason First Team, as well, after making the First Team last year.

Last year, the All-American Collier led the AAC in scoring (20.4 points per game), blocks (2.1 per game), and field goal percentage (68 percent). She also led the Huskies in rebounds with over nine boards per game last season. For Auriemma, Collier’s breakout sophomore season didn’t come as a shock.

“The kind of year that [Napheesa] had last year I think took a lot of people by surprise,” Auriemma said. “It didn’t take us by surprise at Connecticut, but there’s just a lot of things that she does that look like they come so easy for such a young player.”

Samuelson, a fellow All-American, finished second on the team in scoring at 20.2 points per game and led the Huskies in minutes (32.1 per game) last season. Samuelson also led the AAC in three-pointers made (3.2 per game).

With a veteran, experienced core returning to Storrs this season, there’s no reason not to expect the Huskies to return to the Final Four this year. But for now, UConn is focused on improving every day.

“Each and every day for us is a big thing and whatever it is at that time,” Nurse said. “Whether it’s a practice, a lift, a meeting with the coaches; that’s what we’re focusing on and to be the best that we can be. Individually and collectively getting better is our goal right now.”

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