Hartford's XL Center, one of Connecticut's two homes, is a familiar birthplace of perfect seasons. It is less familiar as the architect of twins.
Lubbock Christian (34-0) will attempt Monday to complete the third perfect season in NCAA Division II women's basketball history when it plays Alaska-Anchorage (38-2) in the national championship game in Indianapolis. In its first season of NCAA postseason eligibility after transitioning from NAIA, the Lady Chaps enter the final not only unbeaten but outscoring opponents by nearly 30 points per game.
Yet their bid for perfection has its roots, paradoxically, in a 95-39 loss in an exhibition game against Connecticut in Hartford on Nov. 2.
"It was the best 56-point loss you could ever imagine," Lubbock Christian coach Steve Gomez joked.
That exhibition loss, of course, doesn't count as part of the team's official record. And the 34-game winning streak that followed, which included just three wins by single-digit margins, landed Lubbock Christian back in the same arena as Connecticut.
The NCAA this year moved the Division II and Division III national championship games to the site of the Division I Final Four. In a twist of fate, both games share connections to the main attraction. Also to be played Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Division III title game features Thomas More College attempting to become the third program in any division to complete back-to-back perfect seasons, joining Connecticut and Division III Washington University (the St. Louis school not to be confused with Division I semifinalist the University of Washington). In the way of that stands Tufts University, coached by former Connecticut standout Carla Berube.
But only Lubbock Christian, not Oregon State, Syracuse or Washington, played these particular Huskies.
That the preseason game even took place was mostly good fortune. Lubbock Christian isn't unfamiliar with testing itself -- it beat Texas Tech in an exhibition game in 2009 -- but it was little more than a whim when an assistant coach emailed Connecticut in the summer of 2014. Getting a response at all was a surprise, let alone the willingness to schedule the game.
Nicole Hampton, an All-American who averages nearly a triple-double (she is the school's all-time leader in points, assists, rebounds and steals), grew up, like many, with Connecticut as the gold standard. Also like most, she had little reason to think she would do more than watch the Huskies from afar.
"We never thought they would want us to come up there, a little school in Lubbock," Hampton said. "But once we saw it [on the schedule], I just lit up. I was so excited. I was, of course, a little nervous, but I was more excited to get the opportunity to play the best of the best in women's basketball. ... We want to reflect what they do in basketball at our level, too."
Hampton got a picture with Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck after the game. At the same time, Geno Auriemma complimented the opponent both for its traveling party of around 150 fans who made themselves heard among more than six thousand locals and for playing fearlessly.
Lubbock Christian led twice, 2-0 and 3-2. Any dreams of an improbable upset ended there, but they weren't overawed by the opponent. They just weren't as good as Connecticut. Big deal. So far no team is as good as Connecticut.
"We wanted to go see if we could win possessions," Gomez said. "We knew we weren't going to win the game, but we wanted to challenge ourselves to see how good can we play for multiple possessions. That's the focus you have to have all year, whether you're playing the best team in the world or a team that's not as strong. You just want to play consistent and play well."
Their world is a different world. There was no charter flight to Indianapolis this weekend, instead a pre-dawn alarm necessary to rise and make connecting commercial flights. That is still a cushier arrangement than conference games, when the school's men's and women's teams pile on the same bus and travel through a part of the country where there is only open space -- one road trip nine hours without crossing state lines. But they play the same game with the same passion. The goal for Lubbock Christian's players, to see how much of their full potential they can realize, is the same as it is for the players they hope to reconnect with at Friday's celebration banquet.
Moving the Division II and III championships serves two purposes. First, it gives those athletes a taste of the major event that the Final Four has become. Lubbock Christian was greeted by a band at its hotel when it arrived Thursday and will be in the midst of a weekend expected to draw 30,000 people to Indianapolis. But the second hope is increased exposure for the games. It would be nice to think that the people who say Connecticut is bad for women's basketball would invest the time to watch a counter argument in real time.
"It's been a long journey," Hampton said. "But I think starting out playing them really helped us learn a lot."