The journey to Tampa for the 2019 women’s basketball Final Four for the UConn Huskies didn’t begin with a Tuesday afternoon plane ride out of Connecticut. It didn’t begin with UConn’s Elite Eight win over Louisville, or the gutsy, dominant win at Notre Dame in December, or even the opening jump ball of the 2018-2019 women’s basketball season.
It didn’t begin with freshman Christyn Williams’ declaration that her team would win it all back in June. It didn’t begin with Arike’s heroic overtime shot last year, or Morgan William’s regulation buzzer beater the year before that. Unlike the end of the last three Final Four trips, the beginning was not punctuated by heartbreak.
No, this journey began as few things seldom do — unless, of course, you’re UConn. This journey actually began with a win and a storybook ending for one of the most dominant players in women’s basketball history.
For seniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, the journey for the then-freshman to this year’s Final Four in Tampa began with a fourth consecutive national championship in 2016 behind Breanna Stewart. Stewart came to UConn to win an unprecedented quartet of national titles and did just that (and has been the MVP of Everything ever since). However, as is in all things sports, inevitably even the brightest burning torches have to be handed down to the next generation of ballers. After all, they say records are made to be broken, and what better precursor to greatness is there than greatness itself?
UConn’s torch has to be pretty damn heavy by now, kindled with too many national championships and player accolades to list, but time and time again Geno Auriemma and his coaching staff net players strong enough, graceful enough, and talented enough to pick up that torch and run away with it.
After UConn won their semifinal game in 2016, I grabbed tickets to the national championship, and my dad and I made the drive to Indianapolis for the game. We sat in the back row of Bankers Fieldhouse while I unnecessarily gnawed through my nails as UConn knocked off Syracuse easily for their fourth consecutive championship. UConn had rewritten history again and confetti danced down from the rafters to a tune it knew by heart.
UConn wins the national championship!
With that win, the ever-expanding UConn mantle was passed off to Lou and Phee; that torch, with all its many fires, became there’s to keep lit.
And despite some disappointing losses, three years later, here it is, without a steady stream of national championships but still very much on fire.
To any other team – hell, even to this year’s epic Notre Dame senior class – one national championship is what dreams are made of. But when you’re on a team like UConn that’s won as much as UConn has in the past decade, three consecutive Final Four losses can be tough to swallow. It can be tough to swallow as a spoiled fan (though, I like to think I’m a little more realistic about all of this than some UConn fans), but it can be even tougher to swallow as a player on a team whose players are often defined, fairly or not, by the number of national championships they’ve won.
So, even though the losses for Lou and Phee came few and far between, the three that ended their last three seasons don’t just sting — they punch. Hard. There’s nothing in sports quite like trying to live up to the winning expectations of UConn women’s basketball, and those two wanted this as bad as they could when sometimes wanting just isn’t enough.
But, as their time with UConn concludes, the records books will always show that Lou and Phee were two of the greatest. They battled through injuries, shooting slumps, heartbreaking losses, growing pains, doubt and criticism and selection committee snubs to become the highest scoring classmate duo in school history, All-Americans, top WNBA draft picks. They were quiet, passionate kids who became leaders of a team that needed them to step up in the big moments, to carry a legendary torch no matter how unbearably heavy it got.
This year, I drove to Notre Dame and St. Louis to see UConn play. I bought my tickets to the Final Four in Tampa back in November, knowing this UConn team was going to be more vulnerable than the 2016 team I saw in Indianapolis, knowing I might end up in Tampa without them, but hoping I might get to witness Lou and Phee bookend their UConn careers with another title. So I had to choke back tears when Lou lit up Louisville with seven 3s and 29 points to get her team back to the Final Four one final time.
And I had to choke back a different kind of tears on Friday when they came up a few points short of the National Championship game again.
Just like that, the journey was over.
I can count on one hand the number of UConn games I’ve missed over the last two years, and while I’ve been a fan of the Huskies for a long time, this group has an extra special place in my heart and so much of that is because of Katie Lou and Napheesa. They’ve been so fun to watch these past four years. I’ve loved watching them grow into their games, I loved watching them come into themselves, and I’ve loved watching them leave everything they had on the court.
People hate UConn because they win a lot. But with each win, with each loss, with each passing season, and with each graduating class, we’re drawing closer to the end of something remarkable. UConn’s star isn’t close to falling yet, but it will eventually. Just like UCLA, just like Tennessee, this dynasty won’t last forever. As a basketball fan, more and more I just want to enjoy and celebrate the journey of these incredible players and the team that’s been better at chasing perfection than anyone else for the past thirty years.
Because, like I said, inevitably even the brightest burning torches have to be handed off. Lou and Phee kept UConn’s burning.
Who’s got next?