INDIANAPOLIS -- A thought has percolated through this year's NCAA tournament, a sentiment shared by everyone who looked at Connecticut and saw an unbeatable team.
Wait until next season.
Wait until Breanna Stewart is gone. Wait until Connecticut doesn't have the services of a three-time national player of the year, not to mention her running partner Moriah Jefferson and, quite possibly, fourth-year junior Morgan Tuck. Then the rest of the country can get even.
Maybe. Maybe not.
On the night those same words took on a bittersweet tinge for Connecticut freshman Katie Lou Samuelson, who suffered a broken bone in her left foot during a semifinal win against Oregon State and will miss Tuesday's NCAA championship game, she and Connecticut's underclassmen looked a lot less like a group new to all of this hubbub than a core that doesn't want to be anywhere else in April.
"You have to pick your poison," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said after an 80-51 loss. " And that team made us pay no matter what we did."
Even if he sounded a little like he was talking himself into the sentiment in reference to losing Samuelson, Auriemma put it another way during an on-court interview prior to the fourth quarter.
"We'll be all right," the coach said.
In the moment, he meant all right without Samuelson for the remaining minutes against Oregon State and Tuesday's championship game against the Syracuse-Washington winner.
There was evidence in Bankers Life Fieldhouse that the same might apply beyond Tuesday night.
Tuck was exceptional in the win, shooting Connecticut to a position of control early in the game and giving away inches but little else to Oregon State's Ruth Hamblin the paint. In an arena that is home to a WNBA team, it was a reminder of why, like Stewart and Jefferson, she will be back here soon enough in a different uniform. But on a night when Stewart didn't take her first shot until the second quarter, making most of her 16 points superfluous, and Jefferson was very good but also uncharacteristically generous with the ball in committing five turnovers, Tuck the supporting All-American was initially backed by the supporting cast of underclassmen.
Samuelson, who was not available to the media after the game, had never been here before but contributed seven points, three rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes prior to the injury. Neither had freshman Napheesa Collier, who added six points, two rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 14 minutes.
"You have to pick your poison. And that team made us pay no matter what we did." Oregon State coach Scott Rueck
Even Gabby Williams played all of nine minutes in Connecticut's semifinal and final victories a season ago. She totaled eight points, five rebounds and two steals Sunday.
Their contributions were not merely the spoils of victory, seized after the game was won. With 17 combined points in the first half, Samuelson, Collier and Williams had just nine fewer than Oregon State.
"I think it was really [Williams and Collier] who really kind of set that tone," Jefferson said of what was a double-digit margin within six minutes and rarely any closer than that thereafter. "They were leaving those guys open and they knocked in shot after shot. So once that happened, defense started to stretch and then that gave us guards room to penetrate and kick."
Williams and Collier continued to play well into the second half. Samuelson couldn't take the court, her foot in a boot on the sideline and the emotions evident on her face. Auriemma said the injury occurred in the game's opening moments when Samuelson drove to the basket, but she continued to play until halftime.
"It was sad," Nurse said. "You don't want to see a teammate go down, especially someone who works as hard as Lou. She was stringing together a really good last little bit of the season for us."
With less than a minute to play in the half, Samuelson and Oregon State freshman Katie McWilliams both went a rebound that neither was perfectly positioned to claim. Still known best at this stage for her outside shooting, Samuelson ripped the ball away from McWilliams and put in a layup for the final points of the half and a 21-point lead.
It was the final act of her debut season, but in that one moment was the difference between a freshman season spent in the cauldron that is Storrs, daily practices under Auriiemma's gaze and against a slew of All-Americans, and one spent anywhere else. Even if anywhere else is home to the Pac-12 champions and one of the best run and fastest rising programs out there.
There is nothing quite like playing Connecticut for the first time, as this collection of Oregon State players was only the latest in a long line to experience. That is exactly why so many Huskies seem so at ease the first time they are asked to contribute on this stage.
"I don't think anyone is really prepared for it," Williams said. "There is no level of basketball like this anywhere. So you learn as you go -- you have to learn as you go."
"I think it was really [Williams and Collier] who really kind of set that tone. ... They knocked in shot after shot." Senior Moriah Jefferson on UConn's early double-digit lead
As Nurse put it, Connecticut is a different world. For a California native like Samuelson, that wasn't just true weather-wise. During her team's regional, Stanford's Karlie Samuelson, one of Katie Lou's two older sisters to play for the Cardinal, talked about the messages she would get from her little sister that showed her trudging through snow or bundled against the cold. That took some adjustment. Just not as much as playing the kind of basketball Auriemma demands.
"What she does well is shoot from outside," Nurse said of Samuelson. "But she's so much more than that. She's such a dynamic player, and she started to figure out she could do a lot more than shoot. She could shot fake, get to the rim, defensively make plays and use her length. That's what has made her so good."
The uncomfortable truth is that Connecticut probably doesn't need Samuelson to win Tuesday night against an opponent that already beat the odds just to reach the final. That's not just because the Huskies get the best players, but as Rueck noted, they get the players they want. Samuelson was ready for the moment. Williams or Collier will be ready to start in her place.
"This school will get you, break you in half and build you back up to be a much better person," Jefferson said. "I think everybody goes through it. Freshman year is probably the toughest. You can definitely see when that light flicks on, and it's definitely there for them."
Wait until next year.
Samuelson will do so eagerly, even as she lends her support from the bench Tuesday night.
The rest of the country? If not Tuesday, there are no guarantees next year will be different.