UConn is Great for Basketball (And Not Just Women’s)

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The most exciting game I watched while covering the 2017 Final Four in Arizona emanated from Dallas.

Don’t get me wrong: Though horrible officiating marred a competitive national championship game with Gonzaga and North Carolina, Saturday’s semifinals between Gonzaga and South Carolina, and especially the prime-time tilt pitting Oregon against North Carolina delivered great basketball and plenty of drama.

However, that Friday’s Women’s Final Four semifinal between UConn and Mississippi State provided entertainment few sporting events match.

UConn’s 88-point rout of Saint Francis in First Round NCAA Tournament competition Saturday sparked a new round of debate about the powerhouse program’s impact on women’s basketball, with USA Today columnist Josh Peter providing fuel.

Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma provided a more thorough and emphatic fisking of Peter’s take than I could hope to:

Still, this argument resurfaces every so often during UConn’s run of 11 national championships, particularly amid the four-peat the Huskies engineered from 2013 through 2016. A fifth title in six seasons, with UConn locked in revenge mode and smashing all comers in an undefeated run, has given it new life. And I reflect on that Friday night a year ago as my own evidence to the absurdity of suggesting UConn somehow damages women’s basketball.

I met up with colleagues for dinner at a sports bar that day following the Men’s Final Four media session. There wasn’t an empty table in the establishment, with TVs tuned to a variety of events: NBA, NHL, some exhibition MLB. Yet every eyeball was locked on UConn-Mississippi State.

Every bucket scored, rebound grabbed, turnover committed and foul whistled elicited genuine emotions from the patrons around me. It was an awesome atmosphere for a tremendous game.

When Mississippi State’s Morgan Williams sank a jump shot in overtime to complete the Bulldogs’ upset, a collective cheer went up throughout the bar. The same feeling I had a year earlier watching Kris Jenkins nail a buzzer-beater to win Villanova’s national championship set in. I was seeing one of those legendary sports moments anyone who witnesses remembers every detail.

I was born a decade too late to see Notre Dame end UCLA’s winning streak, which UConn bested by a full 23 games prior to that Final Four showdown. I can’t imagine that could have been any more exciting than Mississippi State-UConn; that wasn’t a national semifinal, after all.

That game stacks up with the very best I have seen regardless of sport, and it wouldn’t have been possible without UConn’s greatness. And that’s good for basketball.