COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The last time the Connecticut women’s basketball team lost a game, the Huskies looked very different.
Seven players took the court for Connecticut in the 88-86 loss at Stanford back on Nov. 18, 2014. Five of them now ply their trade in the W.N.B.A.: Breanna Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Kiah Stokes, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. The Huskies’ current point guard, Crystal Dangerfield, a freshman, was 16.
Still, despite the turnover, a glance at UConn’s schedule to date reveals continued symmetry — a series of victories, no matter the opponent or site, that stood at 86 games as the Huskies took the floor Thursday night against Maryland. And despite stout opposition, the streak reached 87 following Connecticut’s 87-81 victory.
But, as hope springs eternal, a sellout crowd of 17,950 had packed into Xfinity Center to see whether Maryland, the lone Connecticut opponent to so much as challenge the Huskies last season, could end the streak.
“I just think for us, we’re not afraid of the name on the jersey,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. “And that’s three-fourths of the battle.”
The idea was more than just wishful thinking. Unlike last season, when Connecticut stood well ahead of the pack in both offensive and defensive points per possession, the Huskies trailed the Terrapins on both counts entering the game. Maryland ranked second in the country in rebounding margin, crucial to limiting Connecticut’s transition baskets. So it was Thursday night, when Maryland outrebounded Connecticut, 40-31. (Then again, the top team in rebounding margin, Baylor, had already lost to the Huskies this year.)
Maryland also had encouragement in knowing that its two best players from last season, center Brionna Jones and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, ranked among the leaders in the country in true shooting percentage, at 69 and 69.4 percent.
Connecticut showed little interest in engaging the boisterous road crowd early on, racing to a 7-0 lead. They did so despite the apparent illness of Katie Lou Samuelson, the team’s leading scorer, who entered the night at 20.6 points per game. Samuelson vomited into a bucket on the Connecticut sideline, then promptly returned to grab a loose ball, drive up the court and complete a 3-point play.
“If our trainer had said she wasn’t able to play tonight, I wouldn’t have been surprised, based on what the situation looked like,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said of Samuelson after the game. “Lou grew up tonight. That wasn’t easy, to do what she did, and she was pretty spectacular, if you think about it, given the circumstances.”
A pull-up in the lane by Dangerfield gave Connecticut a 20-12 lead after one quarter.
But Jones, who finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds in 28 minutes played, exerted a gravitational pull on the game all night from the Maryland post. Her rebounding repeatedly converted Connecticut’s misses into rewards for the Terrapins, and she gathered in offensive caroms to help extend Maryland’s possessions.
That left room for the talented freshman point guard in the home white, Destiny Slocum, to run the offense like an upperclassman. She finished with 23 points and 7 assists, putting on a remarkable display against a stifling Connecticut defense. A 9-2 run to open the second quarter, capped by a deft pass to Walker-Kimbrough for a baseline jumper, brought Maryland to 22-21 behind.
“Age is just a number, class means nothing,” Frese said of Slocum. “Everybody got to witness tonight what makes her so special. She just has it. She’s poised beyond her years. She’s never going to quit, and that’s contagious.”
Jones committed her second foul with Connecticut up just 26-25 and with 3 minute 20 seconds left in the half, and went to the bench. After the Huskies extended their lead to 36-27, Frese brought Jones back with 1:18 left in the half. Jones grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in, then grabbed a rebound at the other end. By halftime, the Connecticut lead was down to 36-31, and history was within reach.
But then came one of those moments Auriemma has talked about, the periodic echoes of the extended rout that spanned virtually all of last season. This Connecticut team channels that level of basketball — not at all times, but just enough to put other teams away.
First Kia Nurse drained a 3. Then Napheesa Collier curled around a screen and sank a layup. Gabby Williams, who had assisted on the previous two baskets, made a jumper of her own, assisted by Collier. And the ailing Samuelson made a 3 of her own and was clocked by Blair Watson as she did so. Samuelson’s roar was audible in the silenced Maryland arena as she sat on the floor, pumping her fists in the air. Another 3 by Nurse, and the seemingly manageable morphed into the unforgiving reality of Connecticut, 25 months and counting. The scoreboard read 50-31; a 14-0 run had ended the suspense.
“In some ways, it’s because they’re Connecticut,” Auriemma said, referring to his players. “They’re used to making the plays they made tonight. When we needed a shot, they got one. When we needed a stop, they got one.”
To their credit, the Terrapins resumed the fight, cutting the lead to 68-53 by the end of the third and scoring the first 8 points of the fourth to bring the crowd back to life and send the Huskies scurrying to the sidelines with a timeout and a 68-61 lead with 7:23 left.
Out of the break, Auriemma called on Samuelson, who had scored 12 of her 23 points in the third, and she hit a 3 and a driving layup to stall the Maryland run. But a Jones offensive rebound and put-back, followed by a Slocum 3, brought the Terrapins to 73-68 behind with less than five minutes to go.
Among other things, however, Connecticut knows how to close out games. Williams grabbed three rebounds in a 46-second span, and Samuelson found Collier to give the Huskies a 79-70 lead. Saniya Chong, whose 3 in the final moments last year sealed Connecticut’s win over Maryland, made another with less than a minute to play to put the Huskies ahead by 84-75 and ensure that the streak would remain intact.
Now, the dominant question is: Just when will Connecticut lose? Maryland represented the final hurdle in the Huskies’ schedule before their American Athletic Conference slate begins at Central Florida on Jan. 1. Among their next 12 opponents, only South Florida is ranked, and on their current path, the Huskies can tie their own N.C.A.A.-record 90-game winning streak against the Bulls and break it at Southern Methodist.
Sixth-ranked South Carolina is the only remaining opponent currently in the top 10 for the Huskies ahead of the N.C.A.A. tournament, when they could enter play holding onto a triple-digit win streak, unprecedented territory even for Connecticut.
Still, Auriemma has not backed away from his preseason prediction that at some point, this team will lose, a Joe Namath in reverse.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I mean, come watch film. I’ll show you why I think we should lose games. You saw what happened. All we needed was one of those kids to foul out earlier. All we needed was Lou not to play because she’s sick. We’re one thing away. I’m sure most teams are, but …”
Auriemma did not finish the thought, but he did not have to. At the same time, as Connecticut continued to prove on Thursday, it is not like most teams.
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