One year ago, on the night after Super Bowl Sunday, Geno Auriemma sat alongside three stalwart seniors and momentarily imagined a coaching life without them.
“I start to blink because I look out there and start to think that these three are not going to be there next year,” Auriemma, the coach of the Connecticut women’s basketball powerhouse, said after a solid road victory over then-unbeaten and second-ranked South Carolina.
He also appeared to be blinking away a tear or two at the thought of losing those three players: Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck.
That moment of emotional reflection for Auriemma, better known for biting sarcasm, came after a 60th consecutive victory, to which the Huskies predictably added 15 more on the way to their fourth straight (and 11th overall) national championship.
Not many, including Auriemma, would have bet the mortgage on the streaks — both in games and titles — lasting much longer. But on Monday night, in a sold-out and expectant Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies made it an even 100 straight victories, swarming that same South Carolina team, 66-55, to cross the triple-digit threshold.
The Huskies did it behind their do-everything forwards, Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier. Williams scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds while Collier added 18 and 9.
“Continuing what they’ve done for so many years,” said Williams, referring to past iconic Huskies, several of whom, Stewart included, watched from the stands.
It starts to sound ridiculous, but the Huskies, 25-0 this season, have not lost since November 2014 (in overtime at Stanford). If not for that loss, they’d be working on a streak of 148 straight.
Even Auriemma sounded at a loss to explain this. He settled on “it was meant to be” after weeks of insisting that he and his players never talked about No. 100.
Against the 21-2 and No. 6-ranked Gamecocks, the subject was unavoidable. And after 12 successive blowouts in an American Athletic Conference in which the Huskies have gone 75-0 since its formation, the prospect of stiffer competition was preferable.
With an eye on bigger game, the NCAA tournament, Auriemma said: “The 100-win streak isn’t all theirs. They carried the streak across the finish line. But if they win the national championship, it’s all theirs.”
It’s not as if the act of breaking records is new to his program. A previous record 90-game winning streak (surpassing the UCLA men’s record established from 1971 to 1974) was bested by the current run last month.
There is no doubt that a potential fifth straight national title, and 12th overall, is more appealing to Auriemma. But triple digits in consecutive wins represent another symbolic groundbreaking and powerful statement in the continued and collective excellence of a women’s sports team.
Only once has Auriemma’s program come this close to 100 — a home-court winning streak that stood at 99 when an upstart St. John’s team won at Gampel in February 2012, before Connecticut’s departure from what was then a highly competitive Big East Conference.
“Senior night, packed house at Gampel, as always,” said Kim Barnes Arico, then the St. John’s coach, now in her fifth season at Michigan, where she has built a 21-5 tournament-bound team.
Trailing by 2 points in the final seconds, Barnes Arico decided during a timeout to try for the win rather than overtime in such a challenging environment. Shenneika Smith — “she hadn’t made a 3 in weeks” — sank the winning shot. On the triumphant bus ride home, Barnes Arico’s cellphone rang.
“It’s Geno, calling to congratulate me, after what had to be a crushing loss,” Barnes Arico said.
Auriemma had been supportive of her efforts to elevate the St. John’s program, which is why, she said, “I can’t help but applaud what he’s doing there, going for 100 straight, just incredible.”
That said, she was “holding off” on reaching out, or rooting for either side, given her ties to South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. Barnes Arico has coached under-18 and under-19 national teams with Staley, the three-time Olympian and, like Auriemma, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Either way, such a great story,” Barnes Arico said.
Staley’s team — as have most ranked teams — presented Connecticut with its usual handicap of a size disadvantage, with their 6-foot-5 star, A’ja Wilson, and the 6-foot-4 center Alaina Coates. But the Huskies countered with Williams, only 5-10, and Collier, 6-1 — both quick jumpers who play bigger than they are.
After Wilson helped keep the Gamecocks within 35-29 at the half, the Huskies limited her to 5 second-half points. They took control late in the third quarter and were never threatened in the fourth.
“You can’t let your guard down — UConn is going to make you pay every time,” Staley said.
In surmounting every obstacle on a schedule frontloaded with top-ranked opponents, Auriemma rapidly developed a cohesive Core Four to replace a Big Three of Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck, who were the top three picks of last year’s WNBA draft.
“We have no preseason All-Americans, but we have four really good players, and every time we need something, one of them comes up with something,” Auriemma said, referring to juniors Williams and Kia Nurse, and sophomores Katie Lou Samuelson and Collier.
If this wasn’t supposed to be a season of extended dominance, the question entering Monday night had evolved. Would the Huskies ever lose?
“It’s not if,” Auriemma said, “it’s just when.”
But if not Monday night, or sometime this season, just when?
Next season, Connecticut is planning to suit up Azurá Stevens, a 6-6 transfer from Duke who many believe would have been its best player this season. The Huskies will also add Megan Walker, rated by some as the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit. They will return six of their seven rotation players, the exception being Saniya Chong, who shares the point guard position with freshman Crystal Dangerfield.
With no formidable opponent left on the conference schedule, and victories over most of its ranked opponents recorded, an inquiring mind could wonder — at least until game time Monday night — whether the Huskies might in a couple of years be on the doorstep of 200.