Mechelle Voepel, 323d

UConn basketball and the liberation of losing

Women's College Basketball, Connecticut Huskies

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 13 issue. Subscribe today!

These are not the lingering images you expect from a UConn season: The smallest player on the floor, Mississippi State guard Morgan William, hitting the shot just before the overtime buzzer. Thousands of fans -- supporting the Bulldogs specifically and underdogs in general -- erupting in joy. A locker room of dejected Huskies after their 111-game winning streak ends, and Napheesa Collier saying: "It happened at the worst possible time for us."

Skip forward several months, through redemption-seeking summer workouts, through a team trip to play exhibition games in coach Geno Auriemma's native Italy. Then to Santa Barbara, California, for a USA Basketball camp in the fall, where Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, who led the Huskies in scoring last season as sophomores, held their own alongside other college standouts and WNBA pros.

The sting of that national semifinal game in March, and falling short of a fifth consecutive and 12th overall NCAA title, has given way to a sense of liberation.

"I think that was something we knew pretty soon after that loss happened," Samuelson says. "We kind of adjusted quickly. The season had felt a little like we were playing to try to hold on to something that people had done before us."

An end to the streak meant an end to the pressure that came with it. Had the Huskies won the 2017 title, they would be starting this season at 113 victories in a row. Instead, they are untethered from the past -- well, as much as any team functioning within a dynasty can be. What happens for Collier, Samuelson and their teammates for the rest of their UConn careers belongs solely to them.

The duo came to Storrs for 2015-16, and they apprenticed under stars Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. When those seniors became the top three picks in the 2016 WNBA draft, Collier and Samuelson moved squarely into the spotlight.

As a sophomore, Collier, a 6-foot-1 forward with near-flawless footwork and fundamentals, led the team in scoring (20.4 ppg), rebounding (9.1 rpg), field goal percentage (67.8) and blocked shots (77). Samuelson, a 6-3 guard/forward who has supplemented her signature 3-point shooting with more offensive versatility and improved defense, led UConn in minutes played (32.1 per game) and 3s (119) and was second in scoring (20.2 ppg).

"Coming into last season, there was not that big a focus on those two," Auriemma says. "Then the way they played was out of this world."

They helped lead the Huskies to a 29-0 regular-season mark, topping UConn's previous best winning streak of 90 games along the way. The Huskies won their first four NCAA tournament games by an average of 36 points. The loss to Mississippi State was their only stumble. "Now the focus when we start this season is going to be directly on those two and Gabby," Auriemma continues, adding senior star Gabby Williams. "Everybody's going to know everything they do, and now they have to take the next step."

That means an even bigger leadership role, which Collier, the American Athletic Conference preseason player of the year, has embraced. "I think it's a lot better now that Katie Lou and I are upperclassmen," she says. "We had to take on that role last year, and I think it's made us better able to help our freshmen out this year."

Auriemma says he's also looking for stronger, more physical play from Samuelson this season and for Collier to become more of a two-way player. Still, he says, "they're only juniors, and they're really good."

The Huskies have a lot of "really good" to go around, with Collier, Samuelson and Williams, All-Americans last season, and senior guard Kia Nurse. Then add Azura Stevens, a 6-6 transfer from Duke who brings size and the multidimensional skill set UConn values. Then add Megan Walker, rated the top recruit nationally by ESPN's HoopGurlz. South Carolina is the defending national champion -- the Gamecocks beat a drained-looking Mississippi State for the title -- but UConn is far and away the favorite.

That's not an unusual place for the Huskies to find themselves. It's just that for the first time in a while, they have something to prove.

"It does feel like definitely a fresh start," Samuelson says, "and we can kind of make a name for our team specifically this year."

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