Connecticut ties own streak with 20 minutes of near-perfect basketball

Katie Lou Samuelson, left, high-fives her teammates after the final buzzer Tuesday. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Katie Lou Samuelson, left, high-fives her teammates after the final buzzer Tuesday. Photo by Stephen Slade.

As UConn stomped East Carolina last week for its 89th consecutive victory, there was hardly a ripple in the sports world – a very different reaction than the last time they won 89 in a row. But then again, back in 2014, they were approaching the “unsurpassable” 88-game winning streak of the iconic Coach John Wooden and his UCLA men’s team, and the whole sports world – even men’s basketball writers – were all over the story. This time, the win was just a step towards breaking the real record: UConn’s own 90-game win streak, set from the start of the 2008-09 season through Dec. 30, 2010, when they lost to Stanford.

A win Tuesday night against South Florida – yet another ranked team – was nonetheless an important milestone: the extension of a winning streak by a team that was not supposed to be 14-0 after losing the three best players in the game. Of course, when you are UConn, these amazing records are so common they begin to feel ordinary. The Huskies have gone 864 games without back-to-back losses.

To tie their own record, UConn needed to defeat the No. 20/22 South Florida Bulls, a team that has usually been competitive with the Huskies, even in their twenty consecutive losses against them. The Bulls’ Laia Flores leads the nation in assist/turnover ratio (3.81). Sophomore Katia Laska had averaged 24 points per game. The Bulls entered the contest 11-1 on the season.

None of that mattered on Tuesday. UConn, in this season nobody calls a “rebuilding” year anymore, played as close to a perfect half of basketball as coach Geno Auriemma has ever seen. The usually glib Philadelphia native admitted, “that first quarter, I was speechless. I really didn’t know what to say.” To the coach, tying the 90-game steak “I couldn’t care less about.”

Auriemma did admit to being uncharacteristically happy about the way his team played the first two quarters of the game.

“We played like a team that was – tonight anyway – that was on a mission to do something that was really important to them,” he said. “And I would say it’s important to play great and to play hard and to play with a lot of energy every single night. And I know that’s not possible every night. But I think those first 20 minutes tonight was an indication of what happens when you do play . . . I told them in the locker room, ‘That’s as good a twenty minutes of basketball as any of them have ever been a part of. . .  So for them, that was pretty special, what happened today.”

Junior guard Kia Nurse echoed her coach, admitting that the streak was at least partly on the player’s minds.

“Anytime you get to be a part of the history book it’s special. Not a lot of people get to do that in your life,” she said. “The time & effort people have put in to build this legacy that is UConn, to continue that on, that’s been something that’s been special for us.”

For this reporter, in my 21st year covering UConn women’s basketball, it was the most complete half of basketball I’ve seen, with the entire team contributing. The Huskies led 28-6 after one quarter. They led 65-19 at the half, shooting 66.7 percent, while holding the Bulls to 26.5 percent. USF looked outmatched at every position, and had no answers to UConn’s superior athleticism, stifling defense, great shooting, and passing mastery. Four Husky players had three or more assists in the half.

The entire UConn stat line for the first twenty minutes is stunning: 21 assists on 26-39 shooting (66.7 percent), 7-15 from three, 7 blocks, 6 steals, and just 5 turnovers. The defense held USF to 14.3 percent shooting in the first period, 26.5 percent for the half.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and his assistant coaches look on after the Huskies tied their own record for consecutive wins. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and his assistant coaches look on after the Huskies tied their own record for consecutive wins. Photo by Stephen Slade.

The Huskies now have a perfect record this season, but Auriemma is usually the first to point out the team’s major flaws. In the first half against USF, he had nothing to criticize.  This game was a major step in the direction of the unattainable goal of perfection.

Some of the greatest strides lately have come from Saniya Chong, the lone senior on the team. Throughout her career she has been insecure and inconsistent, and nobody was counting on her to be a regular contributor to UConn’s success. But that may be changing, as it appears that Chong may finally have found the confidence to make her another piece of the interchangeable Husky offense. Over the last six games, Chong is 8-12 (.667) from three-point range, 18-27 (also .667) overall. She has 22 assists and just five turnovers. She is playing good defense (five steals, one block). If she maintains this focus – it’s unlikely she can maintain the shooting – UConn looks unassailable.

The Huskies are a perennially excellent passing team. This year’s group may become among the best, simply because in this as in everything else, the starters are becoming interchangeable, and therefore unguardable. Gabby Williams, the starting forward who jumps the ball to begin the game, leads the team with 72 assists.

In a game with few flaws, another statistic stands out as a good sign for the Huskies: through three quarters, the team committed exactly one foul. Depth is an issue for this UConn team, with only two players, freshman point Crystal Dangerfield, and improving junior center Natalie Butler playing regular minutes against top competition. Several top coaches have opined that the way to beat the Huskies is to get the starters in foul trouble. If UConn can limit the whistles, they are already – with two months remaining – the most likely national champion. That would be their twelfth, and fifth in a row.

I had hoped to be able to analyze the USF’s strengths, but in this contest, with UConn playing at an incredibly high level, it is not possible. Nobody looked that skilled. The team scored just 26 points in three quarters playing against the Husky regulars. The Bulls turned the ball over 20 times, but UConn turned those turnovers into 24 points. Against the regulars, USF shot just 22 percent. Maria Jespersen, with 11 points, was the only Bull in double figures.

The final score in this one, with the starters sitting for the entire fourth quarterl: 102-37. For the second time, UConn has won 90 games in a row. In his great mood, even Auriemma took notice of the milestone.

“Any time you do something that’s never been done before, and you do something that’s going to be in the history books, they you feel like, very, very few people have ever been in this situation,” he said. “And who knows if anybody will ever be in this situation again. I don’t know. But for us to be in this moment twice, is – it’s hard to describe. I mean, how do you . . .?”

Auriemma speechless twice in one day is pretty special, too. This UConn team is becoming a juggernaut. Playing like they did on this day, there does not seem to be anyone who can beat them.

The record-breaking 91st straight win comes if UConn defeats 10-5 SMU on the road on Saturday. Winning 100 will require them to defeat No. 5 South Carolina at the Huskies’ campus home, Gampel Pavilion, on Feb. 13. That victory would be their tenth over a ranked team on the season.