UConn women set sights on ending seven-year national championship drought
For most programs, a seven-year stretch without a national championship isn’t a major reason for concern. For elite programs like UConn, it qualifies as a drought.
The Huskies have been the standard in women’s college basketball for nearly 30 years under head coach Geno Auriemma, winning 11 NCAA Division I titles since 1995, including four straight between 2013 and 2016. Since then, they’ve reached the final just once, losing to South Carolina in 2022.
To say there’s been a power shift in the women’s game may be unfair, but there’s certainly more competition at the top.
South Carolina looked destined to repeat as champions under head coach Dawn Staley last season, winning its first 35 games before falling in the Final Four to Iowa and Caitlin Clark, who went on to win National Player of the Year. Clark, who averaged 31.8 points per game in the tournament, stumbled in the championship game, losing 102-85 to Angel Reese and LSU.
Clark and Reese are back this season, as well as Staley and the Gamecocks, who are 11-0 and currently stand atop the AP Poll. And then there’s the Huskies, currently 9-3 and ranked 17th, but with recent wins over ranked opponents in North Carolina and Louisville. UConn enters its holiday break following Wednesday’s 111-34 win over Toronto Metropolitan University – a homecoming game for senior Aaliyah Edwards, who hails from Kingston, Ont.
Edwards, part of a freshman class from 2020 that includes Nika Muhl and standout Paige Bueckers, is averaging 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and shooting 58.2 per cent from the field – putting the finishing touches on what’s been a spectacular college career.
But there’s one thing that’s eluded her.
“The goal, the ideal, (is) to win a national championship,” Edwards said. “Especially us three in our class, as freshmen…each and every year that’s been our goal.”
Edwards has been a mainstay since cracking UConn’s starting five in her sophomore year, playing in 114 of 115 possible games and seeing an increase in her role in each season.
It’s been a different path than that of Bueckers, who joined the Huskies as ESPN’s top-ranked recruit and took the reins of one of college basketball’s most prestigious programs in her first year on campus. She lived up to the hype, averaging 20.0 points per game as a freshman while leading UConn to the Final Four, capturing National Player of the Year honours in the process.
Since then, it’s been an uphill climb. After a knee fracture and meniscus tear limited her as a sophomore, Bueckers tore her ACL last August, sidelining her for an entire season.
Despite not being fully cleared to resume activity until this August – just over a year after her injury – Bueckers has returned to form, averaging a team-high 18.8 points per game and shooting 53 per cent from the field, which ranks second amongst guards in the Big East.
“(She’s) always the same confident, fiery competitor,” Edwards said Bueckers, “She’s just so passionate about the game, like I am too…It’s a good dynamic, not just between us, but between everyone on the team.”
Edwards is eager to end her career at UConn on the highest possible note, but is content taking things on a step-by-step basis leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
First on the agenda is dominating the Big East.
“One of the focuses of the first half of the season, going into conference play when we come back from the holidays, is just building on our strength and building on the things that we do well,” Edwards said.
“Every day when we get better, it’s going to lead to when the time comes in March,” she added. “We’re not focusing on what we need to do to get ready…first we’ve got the Big East Championship to worry about, and then we worry about the NCAA Championship.”
Wednesday’s game in Toronto was UConn’s last before the holidays, with the team breaking until New Year’s Eve, when they’re back home for a meeting with Marquette, followed by a road game against Creighton on Jan. 3.
“This is a really good time,” Auriemma said following Wednesday’s win, the Huskies’ fifth in a row. “We’re leaving for our break with a lot of positive energy.”
It’s a time to rest and relax, before digging back into that ultimate goal in the new year – ending the seven-year national championship drought.
But there’s still plenty of space for improvement between now and March.
“I think we’re in a good place,” Auriemma said. “(But) we’re certainly nowhere near where we need to be.”