The Huskies played 30 games during what was a challenging regular season. There were quality wins, particularly at Texas A&M, against Purdue in the Virgin Islands, at then-No. 1 Stanford, against then-No. 4 Duke and Louisville and at St. John’s and South Florida.
But there was also plenty of adversity. Seven of the 10 players in the primary rotation missed at least one game due to injury, illness or a concussion. Brianna Banks was lost for the season after tearing the ACL in her right knee at St. John’s Feb. 2. All-American Bria Hartley struggled both mentally and physically with a sprained left ankle. Star freshman Breanna Stewart was inconsistent following a season-opening 10-game surge. There were two losses to No. 2 Notre Dame that cost UConn an opportunity to win the Big East regular season championship for the second straight year. And there was also a loss to No. 1 Baylor.
The Huskies are well aware that they had their chances to win both games against the Irish. They also had a seven-point lead with 15:46 left against Baylor. But … They now will begin a new season Sunday night when they face either DePaul or Marquette in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament at the XL Center (6). This is the time of season that brings a renewed focus and a heightened sense of urgency.
“The regular season’s long,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s really long. Two semesters. A lot of travel this year. A lot of uncertainty with injuries. Losing Brianna. It was rough. Again, emotionally it was difficult. But every year we have a tendency of putting that behind us now and saying, `OK, that phase is over. And now it’s time to start on a new season.’ And this season’s easier because it’s shorter and you can see the end. `Guys, we’ve got to play great for three days.’ You say that in November … `Guys, we’ve got to play great for five months.’ So this does give them a real laser focus kind of thing.’’
Despite everything that has transpired over the past five months the Huskies remain as upbeat as they have been all season. Sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who should be named an All-American by the time this postseason concludes, believes that things will find a way to work themselves out for the Huskies over the next four weeks no matter what shortcomings they displayed during the regular season.
UConn believes it can win the Big East tournament championship. It believes it can win the national championship too.
“I feel like we’re going to end this off right. I can feel the vibe and the energy from us right now,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “And as long as it stays positive and we trust Coach and we trust each other then it’s going to end the way we want it to.’’
Mosqueda-Lewis admitted that this team did not necessarily trust one another at times during the regular season. And this lack of trust created some doubt.
“No, I don’t think it was there,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “I don’t think it was a conscious thing, but you know when Coach told us (Thursday) when you have even a little bit of doubt in whether someone’s going to be there when you get driven by, if someone’s going to block the shot, you have a little doubt whether your shot’s going to go in or not or whether you know what to do, just that little doubt adds up to a lot when you have every single player having a little bit of it.
“If we can’t trust each other right now, the first people we need to put our trust in are the coaches. And once we trust the coaches and we do what they need us to do then everything else falls into place. You start doing what the coaches need you to do and your teammates see that you’re trustworthy. Your teammates see that Coach tells her that she needs to be on the red line then I know when I get driven by she’s going to be there.’’
In order to win the Big East tournament this week the Huskies understand that they will need to beat Notre Dame in the final. In order to win the national championship the Huskies likely will have to beat Notre Dame and Baylor in a span of three days in New Orleans next month.
Mosqueda-Lewis said that UConn can accomplish its mission on both fronts.
“Our confidence is still here,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “We still feel like we’re the best team in the country. We definitely have a lot of work to do and we have issues that we need to work through right now, but they’re going to get fixed and we’re going to get a different outcome in those games (against Notre Dame and Baylor).’’
The Huskies need to win two games in the Big East tournament to possibly earn another opportunity to take down Notre Dame. They lost both regular season games against the Irish last season before beating them in the tournament final at the XL Center. Will history repeat itself?
In the aftermath of a 96-87 loss in triple overtime in South Bend Monday, UConn is anxious to get another shot at Notre Dame.
“Oh my gosh, if you have any ounce of competitiveness in you then you should be dying to get that back,’’ Faris said. “I’ve said it a couple times, the second the buzzer rang I wanted to go again. When you come up with a loss like that and a loss to a team that you play over and over and over again and the fact that they’ve beat us so many times lately, it’s just every single time it was like, `Dang. I could’ve done this different or this different or this different.’ And we were just that much closer and we played that much better than we did the first time (a 73-72 at Gampel Pavilion loss Jan. 5). And we still didn’t play good. The fact that we played better, but it was still worse than what we can normally play. That’s the part that just eats at you because you’re just like, `We can play so much better than that.’ So, yeah, we’re really itching to get back at that one.’’