Sometimes, the steps are as heavy as the heart at UConn
Published 8:16 pm, Saturday, April 1, 2017
DALLAS — The cheers and the fight song belonged to someone else this time, a victory serenade reserved for Mississippi State.
The lyrics from Starkville, Miss., were just as foreign to the UConn women’s basketball team as this hyperventilating moment at the Final Four, a 66-64 overtime loss that was so painfully permanent.
“Hail dear ol' State! Fight for that victory today. Hit that line and tote that ball, Cross the goal before you fall! And then we'll yell, yell, yell, yell! For dear ol' State we'll yell like H-E-L-L! Fight for Mis-sis-sip-pi State, Win that game today!”
The 11-time national champion Huskies — the state’s eternal champions — were going home without a trophy for the first time in five years. And it hurt. It hurt the way sudden grief tears you apart before you have time to flinch.
Forget the delirious parade in downtown Hartford. Forget the Secret Service trip to the White House with a custom jersey for the president. To the victor go the spoils. Always.
Every other team in the NCAA tournament — including UConn this year — exits stage left after it loses, denied that glorious confetti shower on the last night of the season.
On a Friday night in Texas that slipped into Saturday morning, nobody on the Huskies squeezed their lips tighter or quarantined their tears better than Gabby Williams, the spring-loaded junior from Sparks, Nev.
After her obligatory news conference on the dais with UConn coach Geno Auriemma and fellow junior Kia Nurse, Williams walked alone at the end of a somber procession, quietly navigating the catacombs of the American Airlines Center.
Sometimes, the steps are as heavy as the heart.
“We’re not invincible,” Williams said in a locker room with no privacy for the pain. “We never think, ‘Oh my gosh, we might lose this game,’ because you always want to have that winning mentality. But that’s not always enough.”
This is the requiem for a UConn season that ended too soon, but probably lasted longer than it should have.
Without proven leaders returning to Storrs, Auriemma challenged this year’s team from the first day of practice last fall. He screamed and winced and nearly busted his whistle.
Even then, the Huskies were stirred, not shaken — the perfect Geno Auriemma martini.
“When we started Oct. 15 to where we are today ... these kids were way older than they were supposed to be,” Auriemma said. “They should’ve shown their age early on in the season — November, December, at some point. We just kept playing like older, older players, more mature players.”
Until Mississippi State, that is.
The team UConn drilled by 60 points in last year’s Sweet 16 came out Friday and threw the Huskies into a 16-point hole in the second quarter.
Suddenly, the youth Auriemma had only seen on a scorecard this season was everywhere.
Nearly 20,000 fans in Dallas saw it, too. So did the upstart Bulldogs, the team with a long memory and a short superstar in 5-foot-5 assassin Morgan William.
Even when UConn grabbed the lead in the third quarter and sent this winner-take-all rock fight into overtime, the season was already slipping away. William made sure of it when she buried her buzzer-beating dagger.
“We came out in the second half and we gave ourselves a chance to win the game,” Nurse said, her eyes betraying her seemingly collected voice. “That’s all that we could ask for.”
So what if her lip trembled a little?
Nurse understands that national championships are precious. They are not a birthright at UConn, even if they feel that way.
If you fall short in Storrs, stumbling under the weight of all those banners inside Gampel Pavilion, the pain and the pressure are real.
“It doesn’t feel good,” UConn sophomore Napheesa Collier said Friday night, succinctly distilling the truth from her swelling menu of emotions. “This just happened at the worst possible time for us.
“A lot of us haven’t been in this situation before, so we can really use it for next year to grow. I know none of us want to feel this way again.”
Even with a gaudy 36-0 record, the Huskies were fragile this year, playing with a margin of error that doubled as dental floss — only Auriemma didn’t tell them.
Instead, Auriemma wrapped the dental floss around his team again and again, a cocoon of confidence that never would’ve worked with a veteran team.
“When stuff like this happens, it kind of makes me shake my head and go, ‘You know how many times this could’ve happened and it didn’t?’ ” Auriemma said. “The fact that it never happened, that doesn’t mean I went home thinking, ‘It’s never going to happen.’
“I knew this was coming at some point. I’m just shocked it took us this long to get here.”
The cheers, the fight song lyrics, they belong to Mississippi State now — but only if the Bulldogs beat South Carolina on Sunday for a trophy and that glorious confetti shower.