Kelly Faris hoped that losses to Baylor in December and Notre Dame in early January would be enough to trigger a change within the UConn women’s basketball team. They lost leads in the second half of each game, choosing to retreat in the face of a run by the opposition rather than countering and attacking.
Losses have been few for the Huskies in recent years. But rather than change they continued to go on their way and they continued to win. In the minds of some players it was not necessary to change.
However, bitter losses at home to St. John’s on Senior Night Feb. 18 and to Notre Dame in the regular season finale Feb. 27 left UConn staggering heading into the postseason. If the Huskies were to have any chance of reaching the Final Four for an NCAA record-tying fifth straight season, they desperately needed to change.
“We were immature,’’ Faris said. “We would lose and then we wouldn’t really change much. And I think there came a point where it was like, `OK, this is getting old. This is frustrating. This isn’t what Connecticut’s about.’ And we wanted to have fun with it. It wasn’t fun. We were losing. We weren’t playing well. We weren’t a cohesive unit type of thing. So I think as a whole it just came down to we really decided, `OK, we have to change it. We have to become a more mature team. And do what Coach (Auriemma) tells us, because he’s always right.’’
It was Faris, who customarily leads by example rather than with her words, who led the charge in the days following the loss to the Irish. She told the Huskies what had been transpiring for weeks was unacceptable. There needed to be greater focus, greater execution and a greater sense of togetherness.
Faris’ message was fully absorbed by her teammates. And just more than four weeks later, UConn (33-4) finds itself riding a seven-game winning streak and preparing to face Notre Dame (34-3) in the national semifinals at the Pepsi Center in Denver Sunday night (6:30; ESPN).
“Between (the loss to Notre Dame) and when the Big East tournament started for us (March 4), I think those five days changed everything for us,’’ Auriemma said. “Changed our mindset, our approach, what our expectation level of each other was, and we grew up as a team that week. More so than maybe in those five days than in the previous five months.’’
The Huskies always had the talent to advance to the Final Four and contend for a national championship. But it was the mental aspect of the game that they had to fortify to make this impressive journey.
UConn avenged the losses to St. John’s and Notre Dame on back-to-back nights earlier this month en route to winning the Big East tournament championship in Hartford. The Huskies defeated fourth-seeded Penn State and second-seeded Kentucky in Kingston, R.I. this week to win the regional.
“I think it was just a mental change,’’ UConn sophomore Stefanie Dolson said. “We knew that because of the team that we have this year that we weren’t going to be able to come out on the floor and just some of us not have a good game and other ones have a good game. We all had to come out every time we stepped on the floor and play the best game that we ever could so that way we weren’t going to lose again.’’
Auriemma has questioned right along whether or not this team could win an NCAA record-tying eighth national championship. Senior Tiffany Hayes, the regional Most Outstanding Player, believes that the Huskies have finally sold him on the fact that they now are a championship-caliber unit.
“He has said it on and off,’’ Hayes said. “(Tuesday) he said it. So I think we have.’’
The Huskies, who lack a bonafide superstar, have proven that they have made exceptional strides since losing to Notre Dame last month. They also realize their mission is far from complete.
This team-oriented group has eyes on winning two more games and proving to the nation that this is definitely a national championship team.
“For us, it’s been an unbelievable ride up to this point,’’ Auriemma said. “So many ups in the beginning of the season. So many questions that we had, so much questioning of ourselves through the middle of the season, and then a real coming together at the end. I’m really, really proud of this group and how we’ve grown up in a short period of time. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of kids. And I’m thrilled they’re getting an opportunity to do something that most kids go to college dreaming of.’’