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More Than Another Milestone

The UConn women have made the historic seem routine, but make no mistake: Winning 100 consecutive games is an astonishing sports achievement

The Connecticut women’s basketball team won with relative ease on Monday, dispatching no. 6 South Carolina, 66–55. So in that sense, nothing new happened in the sport: Geno Auriemma’s no. 1 Huskies could just as easily have bested any of a half-dozen other regular rivals — Baylor, Maryland, Notre Dame, and so on — and the song would have played the same.

In another sense, this victory stood alone: By beating the Gamecocks, the Huskies extended the longest winning streak in college basketball history to triple digits, repelling an opponent’s best effort for the 100th consecutive game. The home crowd cheered. Fanfare ensued.

That UConn increased its own record is not of particular noteworthiness. The Huskies set the new winning streak mark at 91 games with an 88–48 victory against SMU last month, and when they bludgeon Tulane (after besting them 100–56 in their first matchup this year) this weekend and run Temple (97–69) off the floor next week, they will set new records then, too.

The sports world sure likes its arbitrary round numbers, though. Wilt scored 100, not 99; the industry standard means ranking the top-100 moments and games and prospects and players. Baseball teams strive to win 100 games, and NBA fans win free food if their team cracks 100 points. There’s no better benchmark for sports fans to recognize the Huskies’ ongoing achievement.

Arbitrariness aside, surviving so long without a loss is remarkable because — as recent sporting events have conspicuously and cogently reminded us — in sports, stuff happens. Star players tear ACLs and head to the bench early with foul trouble; typically-gimme shots rattle out while opponents’ 3-point prayers swish through.

Even UConn knows this: The Huskies’ prior 90-game winning streak, from 2008 to 2010, ended when then-senior Maya Moore’s jump shot — the prettiest in the sport — went awry against Stanford and the Huskies struggled to score. The longest undefeated streak in women’s college basketball history before that was Division III Washington University’s 81-gamer at the turn of the century, which halted with a surprise loss to a team it has beaten in each of the 34 other matchups between the two schools since 1982.

This version of the Huskies isn’t immune to such aberrational performances, but it’s close. Only two victories in the century streak have come by a single-digit margin. Against ranked opponents last year, they won by an average of 20 points; this year, after losing players who became the top three picks in the WNBA draft, they have averaged a 21-point margin. Stuff doesn’t seem to happen to this team.

That factor isn’t the only one that renders a triple-digit winning streak inconceivable. Mathematically, even unnaturally dominant teams are unlikely to maintain streaks of this length. Consider a team that enters every game it plays with a 95 percent chance to win; this team is always a heavy favorite — these are the odds that the Warriors will beat the Kings at home later this week, for instance — yet the probability that it goes undefeated in a given 100-game stretch is less than 1 percent. Even if that team’s game-by-game favoritism jumps to 99 percent, it will win 100 consecutive games only about one-third of the time.

And Connecticut, crucially, is not such an overwhelming favorite in every game. Conference realignment stuck the Huskies in the weak AAC, so they bolster their overall résumé by fortifying their nonconference schedule. Over the course of the streak, they have defeated teams ranked first, second (four times), third, fourth, sixth (twice), seventh, and 10th in the national AP poll. Despite no. 20 South Florida representing the highest-ranked AAC opponent the Huskies have faced throughout their streak — it’s no surprise that they have yet to lose a conference game in the AAC’s history — they have faced nine ranked opponents in each of the past two seasons, not counting the NCAA tournament.

For comparison, last year’s men’s champion, Villanova, played eight ranked opponents before the tournament, and eventual champion Duke played nine the year before. And when Kentucky’s men’s team reached the Final Four with an undefeated record two seasons ago, few complained that the Wildcats’ toughest SEC competition was overmatched 18th-ranked Arkansas.

The streak is less a commentary on parity in women’s hoops than it is on UConn’s singular dominance, across any sport and any level of play. The term “historic” might be “most promiscuously used in sportswriting,” as Bryan Curtis wrote in December, but in Connecticut’s case, with every game taking on such a quality, the Huskies have made the historic seem routine.

Gabby Williams scored 26 points, Napheesa Collier added 18, and South Carolina’s upset bid dissipated in the second half. UConn warded off another challenger. Ho hum. But no matter how normal it feels, Connecticut accomplished the extraordinary by reaching 100 straight wins — and until stuff happens or the math finally evens out, the count will climb higher still.