April 1, 2012
DENVER (AP) - What was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Connecticut nearly turned into a remarkable one.
It still might go down as one of the most memorable for coach Geno Auriemma. Once the pain subsides, that is, and he has time to reflect.
The young and pesky Huskies rallied to force overtime Sunday night before BIG EAST rival Notre Dame pulled away for an 83-75 victory in the NCAA semifinals.
Even in what was supposed to be a season of transition, UConn remained a serious title threat right down to the wire.
For the second straight year, though, Connecticut had to watch the Irish celebrate a trip to the championship game as it trudged off the court in tears.
After a late comeback, UConn (33-5) unraveled in overtime as Brittany Mallory hit two clutch 3-pointers to help lift the Irish (35-3).
"We put ourselves in a position to win the game," Auriemma said. "The last two minutes, minute and a half of regulation, were pretty amazing. As most games do, it turned on one great play by a great player.
"In overtime, we didn't have enough. We took a chance on making it difficult, but Mallory made two huge shots. That's who we wanted to take the shots and ... she made them."
Coming into the game, the Huskies were highly motivated to settle a score after losing to the Irish 72-63 at the women's Final Four last year.
With less than 4 seconds remaining in regulation, Hayes dribbled the length of the court and passed to Bria Hartley, who couldn't get a shot off before the buzzer.
"We feel frustration," UConn junior guard Kelly Faris said. "This was the same thing as last year."
Still, the Huskies made a deep run in what was supposed to be a "mediocre" year.
Then again, this is what a mediocre season looks like at Connecticut: 33 wins and a fifth straight trip to the Final Four.
It just may have been Auriemma's best coaching job during his 27-year stint at the school.
The cupboard was far from bare, but after the departure of All-American Maya Moore, few believed UConn had the playmakers to make a run at an eighth national title.
So much for that notion.
There the Huskies were, close to toppling a foe they knew so well. It was the fourth time the Huskies and Irish met this season; Notre Dame won three of them.
They know each other's secrets and strategies, probably better than their own.
Although the Huskies will lose Hayes, they had quite a few budding stars rise up with the spotlight shining so bright. Dolson finished with 20 points despite drawing her fourth foul early in the second half, while Hartley had 18 points and freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis contributed 13.
"A lot of the teams that have been here before, your freshmen and sophomores aren't going to win you national championships," Auriemma said. "It wasn't until the last minute Kelly was making the plays she normally makes. Our defense was fine for the first 40 minutes; we just passed up too many opportunities against Notre Dame. They're just that good."
In the locker room after the game, Auriemma told his players something he hopes sticks with them.
"He thinks we'll be back here next year," Faris said.
For Notre Dame, with four starters back, nothing but a return to trip to the national championship game would suffice.
Hence, the Irish's mantra.
All season long, they were driven by a simple yet compelling credo: "Unfinished business."
The slogan stems from their 76-70 loss to Texas A&M in the title game last season.
Now, the Irish are back and will play undefeated Baylor (39-0) on Tuesday night.
But the semifinal win was far from easy.
It never is against Connecticut, especially in the thin air of the Mile High City.
"We were very tired. But they were just as tired," Irish guard Natalie Novosel said.