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How UConn Lost

Missed rebounds, careless turnovers, and one unbelievable upset

(AP)
(AP)

It wasn’t just an underdog that beat UConn on Friday in the Final Four, it was an undersize Bulldog. 5-foot-5 Mississippi State guard Morgan William made the game-winning shot in overtime to snap the Huskies’ two incredible streaks: the record-setting 111 consecutive wins, and the four consecutive national championships.

Mississippi State’s 66–64 win has instantly been described as one of the greatest moments in basketball history, and it’s one of the largest upsets in the history of sport. The Bulldogs were a 22-point underdog, and that was generous considering they had lost by 60 to UConn in the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA tournament. (That was an NCAA tournament record until UConn beat Albany by 61 in this year’s first round.)

And yet if you didn’t know which team was which, you might not have assumed it was an upset. Mississippi State jumped out to a 16-point lead in the second quarter, overpowering the Huskies with their size and speed. UConn might be the giants of women’s college basketball, but they aren’t literal giants. This screenshot proves that:

(ESPN)
(ESPN)

That’s Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 center, Teaira McCowan, and UConn’s starting lineup. Her chin starts where the head of UConn’s Gabby Williams, the 5-foot-11 player who guarded her, ends. When McCowan left the game, she was replaced by 6-foot-5 Chinwe Okorie, who is bulkier than McCowan. The tallest player in UConn’s starting five is 6-foot-3 Katie Lou Samuelson, but she’s a guard whose strength is shooting, and she isn’t built for the post. Last year, they had 6-foot-4 basketball prodigy Breanna Stewart, who set the WNBA single-season record for defensive rebounds in her first professional season after graduating. This year the tallest player getting regular minutes for the Huskies was 6-foot-5 center Natalie Butler, but she was the seventh player in a seven-deep rotation, and was ineffective Friday night, with two turnovers and a personal foul in six minutes.

McCowan physically overwhelmed Williams in overtime: She effortlessly swatted a Williams drive, completely bodied her on a post-up, and reached up to snag a pass Williams thought she could loft over McCowan with under a minute to go. Here she is easily bodying Williams out of the way, completely sealing her off en route to a simple layup, one of three field goals in overtime.

But it wasn’t just the big players, as a lot of damage was done by Morgan William, the smallest — and fastest — player on the court for either team. Her shot will live in history, and though she shot just 6-for-17 from the field with 13 points, she was everywhere. She had six assists, more than the rest of her team combined. She had three steals, constantly skittering around the floor and getting her hand on the ball. She forced ball handlers into traveling violations and offensive fouls with intense pressure. And she made an incredible defensive play on what could’ve been UConn’s victory possession. The Huskies had the ball with the score tied and the shot clock turned off, and really should have waited for the final few seconds to take what could have been the last shot of the game. But Saniya Chong thought she had a lane — until William took it away, fighting through traffic and beating Chong to a spot, coaxing her into throwing up an ugly shot. It really could have been a charging violation.

Most huge upsets come when one team shoots the lights out. This one came because Mississippi State simply shot. The Bulldogs had 67 shots; UConn had only 46. Mississippi State didn’t shoot that well, but when you take about 45 percent more shots than the other team, it is easy to score 3 percent more points, which is what Mississippi State did.

They gained those extra shots by dominating on both sides of the glass and forcing turnovers.

The Bulldogs had 14 offensive rebounds, including nine second-chance points in the first quarter. That’s actually not that weird, as defensive rebounding was a relative weakness for the Huskies this year. UConn forced 1,480 missed shots this year, and their opponents grabbed 483 offensive rebounds on those shots, 32.6 percent. Mississippi State missed 42 shots and rebounded 33.3 percent of them, only slightly better than average. Even in UConn’s biggest blowout wins, it gives up a lot of offensive rebounds: DePaul had 17 on 51 misses while losing by 45, USF had 17 on 50 misses while losing by 65, and Albany had 14 on 44 misses while losing by 61.

What was stunning was that UConn managed only six offensive rebounds on 26 missed shots, plus three missed second free throws. They missed 1,085 shots this year and had 425 offensive rebounds, 39.6 percent. At that rate, we could’ve expected them to have about five or six more offensive boards. Just a few of those missing rebounds could have made the difference in this game.

Also stunning was UConn’s failure to control the ball. They’re 12th in the nation in fewest turnovers per game, and lead the nation with a 1.94 assist-to-turnover ratio. (Second place: Baylor, at 1.64.) Friday night, the Huskies had 17 turnovers and just 11 assists.

Last year the Huskies lost the three rocks of a team that had won four straight championships. In 2012, UConn recruited three of the top six players in ESPN’s recruiting rankings: Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck. They went on to become the first players ever to win four championships in four years, and were selected nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the WNBA draft.

After losing those players, this team wasn’t unanimously considered a title favorite. Entering the season, it was ranked third in the nation, behind Notre Dame and Baylor. The Huskies didn’t have as many superstars: Yes, virtually every player on the roster was a five-star recruit, but Samuelson is the only one who was ranked at the top of her recruiting class by ESPN; backup point guard Crystal Dangerfield is the only other in the top five.

But they developed into a behemoth powered not by power, but by preposterous skill. They led the nation in 3-point shooting, and liked to bomb opponents out of the gym — for example, when Samuelson drilled 10 3s on 10 attempts against USF — and also led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. They weren’t Monstars; this squad had the same DNA as the opponents they were lapping. They just did everything twice as well as anybody.

It has been said that UConn’s dominance is bad for women’s basketball. It’s hard to imagine an argument I disagree with more. My job is to write about men’s basketball and football, but I make time to watch UConn not because anybody’s ever asked me to write about them, but because I find their play fascinating. They are just about the closest thing our sport has to transcendence. They didn’t take nights off: They won three games by single digits and 17 games by 40 or more points. They didn’t even take minutes off: They were up 39 against Albany entering the fourth quarter — then went 7-of-8 from 3. It doesn’t matter who shows up to play them: UConn basketball perpetually pushes the limits of its sport to see how great it can be.

The Huskies will regroup. This isn’t even the first time they’ve set the basketball record for consecutive wins, then lost in the Final Four. As long as Geno Auriemma is their coach, they will be head and shoulders above the competition. But they’re not cyborgs, and Friday night, the Huskies played a team that had a player who was literally head and shoulders above them.

They are incredible to watch when their only competition is themselves. It is even more incredible to watch in the once-in-a-season game when somebody gives them a run for their money.

You can say UConn is bad for women’s basketball, but nobody would say Friday night was one of the greatest moments in sports history if it weren’t for all UConn had accomplished before. There is no unbelievable upset if there is no team so brilliant that the idea of an upset cannot be believed.