Brian Koonz: UConn cuts down Oregon, but not the nets

Photo of Brian Koonz

BRIDGEPORT — For some this season, the mountain looming over Dallas was too tall and too intimidating, the kind of climb that chews up confidence with season-ending stumbles.

Just ask Notre Dame and Baylor, the ones waiting to stab national championship flags into a summit they never reached.

But for No. 1 seed UConn, the program of best practices and best players, the Final Four has become a permanent address as much as an annual pilgrimage, the precious reward for unmatched excellence.

Ten straight appearances. And counting.

On Monday night, with another golden ticket firmly in hand, the Huskies smothered No. 10 seed Oregon, 90-52, in the championship game of the Bridgeort Regional at Webster Bank Arena.

And the bliss was everywhere — on the bench, in the stands, in the face of another historic moment for the Huskies.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma will never take a Final Four for granted, even as his players conspicuously left the nets on the rims here.

The rarefied air is too precious, too sweet and too seductive to dismiss it and disrespect it that way.

But understand, the sharpest scissors will come out at the American Airlines Center in Dallas if this curled-up national championship script is followed for a fifth straight year.

“The players that we have today, for the first time in their careers, they’ve owned the whole month of March,” Auriemma said. “They weren’t just along for the ride. It’s theirs. And that’s a huge step.

“That’s what I told them in the locker room. That’s a big step to go from riding in the backseat on a trip that you’re going to — to all of a sudden, you’re in charge of driving the bus and you’re responsible for getting us there.”

After two years in Bridgeport, next year’s NCAA regional for the Northeast will return to the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y.

City and Webster Bank Arena officials are already lobbying the NCAA for more events. In a few weeks, the NCAA will select its next slate of regional sites for the women’s basketball tournament.

The clock and the turnstiles in Bridgeport are spinning like slot machines ready to pay out big.

Charlie Dowd, senior vice president of operations at Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment, hopes the NCAA will bring women’s basketball — and ice hockey — to the city.

“It just makes perfect sense,” Dowd said. “We’ve shown that we can sell out the building and provide the best atmosphere of any of the other regional sites.”

The Huskies (36-0) made sure of it.

The 111-game winning streak, the merciless precision, the crush of title banners, all of it paralyzes opponents.

Oregon (23-14) was never going to win this game, the same way Albany and Syracuse and UCLA were never going to send UConn back to Storrs.

With 3:10 left in the first quarter, UConn’s Saniya Chong stole the ball at midcourt and scored an easy layup to make it 23-4. Suddenly, Oregon was reeling and the Huskies were flying just like they always do.

Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams combined for 53 points and 18 rebounds to lead UConn. Good luck matching up against that in Dallas

“We see things that other people don’t see,” Williams said. “I guess for us, it’s not as surprising — but we still did surprise ourselves.”

On a night when All-America forward Katie Lou Samuelson was perfectly mortal — she finished 4-of-13 against Oregon for 8 points — the Huskies were downright immortal.


This is the enduring mark of a champion. It’s like one of those fancy documents under the glass at the museum, only this one is signed by Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti and every other Husky with a ring.

Oregon, despite its heartfelt convictions and three freshman starters, wasn’t prepared to play UConn on equal terms.

There is no shame in that reality. There is only the truth for Oregon coach Kelly Graves.

“You watch them on film and you say, ‘Hey, we can do this and we can do that.’ But I think the speed of the game, they just play so fast,” Graves said. “And then, once they get rolling, you know, they become even better.”

In the end, the Ducks couldn’t keep up with the Huskies. The summit awaits UConn now in Dallas.; @briankoonz