Season like no other could catapult UConn to most improbable of NCAA women's basketball title runs

MINNEAPOLIS -- UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma sat at the dais in the media room in Atlanta's McCamish Pavilion, arms crossed, voice subdued and his typical charisma replaced with something unheard of for the 11-time national championship coach: helplessness and feeling defeated.

Auriemma's Huskies had just fallen to Georgia Tech 57-44, their first loss to an unranked team in nearly a decade. They were two weeks into losing top 2021 recruit Azzi Fudd to a foot issue and four days removed from 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers going down with a knee injury that would sideline her for nearly three months. Adding salt to the wounds, Nika Muhl was ruled out the day before the game with a foot injury of her own.

Knowing they'd be short three guards for the foreseeable future was tough enough to stomach; but the way UConn played -- an anemic offensive outing that produced just five points in the fourth quarter -- was a far cry from what Auriemma and the rest of the basketball world had been accustomed to seeing from the Huskies over the past three decades. UConn players never emerged for postgame interviews despite always doing so following tough losses in years past, and what Auriemma said afterward was just as startling as the performance itself.

"What I see is a team that's somewhat disheveled. And that's all me," Auriemma said. "Somehow, someway, I do not have the ability at this point in time to affect my players to make sure that we're in a better place mentally and physically and play the kind of basketball we need to play."

"I don't think it's gonna get fixed. I really don't."

If you would have told Auriemma that night his Huskies would get healthy in late February and roar back to life in time to advance to the program's first national title game appearance since 2016, he likely wouldn't have believed you. But that's where UConn is at, five regular-season losses and a pair of NCAA tournament wins over 1-seeds later. The Huskies will play South Carolina, which has spent the entire season ranked No. 1 in the country, on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in search of their 12th national championship. And if they can pull it off, it'd cap one of their most improbable title runs to date.

For as tumultuous as the 2021-22 campaign has been for the Huskies -- seven of their nine rotation players missed at least three games due to illness or injury -- it began with sky-high expectations both internally and externally. After coming up short in the 2021 Final Four to No. 3 seed Arizona, UConn returned most of its major contributors, brought in a stacked recruiting class headlined by Fudd and was ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls.

Things weren't totally smooth sailing at the start. The team was overly reliant on Bueckers, and in its 73-57 loss to the Gamecocks in the Bahamas, the offense produced just three points in the fourth quarter, even with the sophomore guard on the floor.

But December and January brought challenges Auriemma proclaimed he had never experienced since arriving in Storrs. It wasn't just that the Huskies lost star power in Bueckers and Fudd for 19 and 11 games, respectively. But between Muhl, Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Dorka Juhasz and Caroline Ducharme also missing time, combined with a COVID-19 outbreak around the holidays, UConn was at times down to six players in practices -- requiring practice players to join in drills with them -- as well as in games, including their 72-59 loss to then-unranked Oregon. Once they returned from Eugene, Muhl described the team as "going through hell."

After the Georgia Tech (Dec. 9) and Louisville (Dec. 19) losses, the Huskies dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since the 2004-05 season. When they later fell to Villanova in February, it snapped their streak of 169 consecutive wins against conference teams.

"December and January were one of the toughest months I've ever faced here," Nelson-Ododa said. "You never know who is going to be out, who is going to be in. ... Having to go through all of that and figuring out our roles and what we would have to bring to the table was definitely a challenging part for us."

With their guard corps depleted, team members had to play out of position. Williams and Evina Westbrook ran the point when Bueckers and Muhl were out. Newcomer Ducharme was forced into an outsize role with the team struggling to replace the go-to scoring Bueckers provides, and she largely met the challenge.

"We had to shift how we practice because we were limited bodies, shift how we played in games," Nelson-Ododa said. "We kind of went through a couple weeks where we had to really start over when we were two months into the season."

Gone too were the typical 40-point blowouts from the past. Big East games were tighter than usual, and for the first time for many players, they had to learn how to grind out wins in ugly games -- what they couldn't do against the likes of Georgia Tech. Auriemma's message throughout those winter months was to keep trudging along and that their only way out was to stick together.

It was hard to recognize at times, but with Fudd back in the fold by late January and Bueckers' recovery proceeding relatively smoothly, a light remained at the end of the tunnel that the team could enter the most critical stretch of the season fully healthy.

"This team needed a lot of growing up to do," Auriemma said. "Obviously, I think they have or we wouldn't be playing [Sunday] night. If we had stayed the same, if we were the same team mentally and physically that we were back then, I don't think we would still be playing."

Wins over DePaul (Jan. 26) and Tennessee (Feb. 6) re-instilled confidence internally, as did routs in conference play prior to Bueckers' return in late February. And once she was back on the floor, the team around her had developed into a well-balanced, defensive-minded group in which players understood how to excel in their roles and grind out wins. Bueckers' 27-point outburst in UConn's double-overtime win over NC State in the Elite Eight represented the Huskies' most impressive individual performance of the NCAA tournament, but the rest of their run has been a gritty, by-committee effort.

It wasn't simply a contrast to how things went that night at Georgia Tech; it was, according to players, a direct byproduct of it, despite however Auriemma felt in the moment.

Even with UConn now healthy and battle-tested, Auriemma isn't entirely convinced he has the best team in the NCAA tournament. He admitted after the team beat defending NCAA champion Stanford in the national semifinal that the Huskies needed the Cardinal to be off their A-game for a chance at winning.

Still, Auriemma has coached long enough that he knows they're here for a reason. And this time, their tremendous midseason growth ensured they didn't have to be the wire-to-wire No. 1-ranked team or be undefeated or possess an unprecedented winning streak to earn it.

And that just might be what makes all the difference.

"You don't have to be the best team for a long time," Auriemma said. "You just have to be the best team for 40 minutes or play the best for 40 minutes."