NCAA women's tournament • Analysis
What comes next for Caitlin Clark is the hardest part
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Connecticut’s basketball dynasty just felt something new: Vulnerability

Nika Muhl and her Connecticut teammates were stunned in the Sweet 16 by Ohio State. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
6 min

SEATTLE — After the handshake line, Lou Lopez Sénéchal buried her face in her white No. 11 jersey and wept as she walked away. Then she started to jog ever … so … gingerly … back to the locker room at Climate Pledge Arena and into a kind of dejection the Connecticut women’s basketball program can hardly remember.

The Huskies hadn’t felt like this in a long time — not this early. For 14 straight NCAA tournaments, they had gone to the Final Four. For 16 straight tournaments, they had advanced to the Elite Eight. But Saturday afternoon, they faced the full-court ferocity of Ohio State in the Sweet 16 and, for once, they were overmatched.

Despite all their unprecedented success, there was not enough tradition or pride to help the Huskies against an opponent so swift, so active and with such long arms. In a ­73-61 victory, the third-seeded Buckeyes swarmed Connecticut with their relentless defense, intercepting passes like cornerbacks, back-tapping the basketball from the hands of dribblers who thought they were safe, making every possession hell for a program that normally runs the most fluid offensive sets in the sport.

The Connecticut juggernaut had outlasted so much this season: an unfathomable amount of injuries, loved ones lost, so much uncertainty and heartache. But for all the Huskies’ resilience, this was a matchup they couldn’t endure. Ohio State beat a superpower in a manner that you have to beat a superpower. The Buckeyes suffocated the Huskies until greatness didn’t look so great. They intimidated the intimidators until the premier brand in women’s basketball had been reduced to a rhythm-less, skittish, unrecognizable group of strangers.

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“They were all over the floor,” Connecticut forward Dorka Juhasz said of Ohio State. “Nobody wanted the ball. Nobody wanted to get open.”

The Huskies committed 25 turnovers, 18 of them in the first half. Ohio State had 13 steals and scored 23 points off those turnovers. To start the second quarter, Connecticut coughed up the ball on eight straight possessions, accelerating an Ohio State run that grew to 17-0. It was a stunning breakdown by a team known for precision and execution.

“There was film that I watched at halftime and the amount of things that we did that were mind-boggling were just really, really, really … even when I saw it, I couldn’t believe it,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. “The emotions, as one mistake led to another, you could almost see them. They’re like in a carwash and they don’t know how to get out of it.”

In the first quarter, Connecticut jumped ahead 10-2, but even then, there were signs of rickety ballhandling. Ohio State just couldn’t get into its full-court pressure defense because the Buckeyes missed six of their first seven shots. Then they settled down and started executing. And perhaps the most chaotic first half in Connecticut’s vaunted tournament history ensued.

“They knew exactly what they wanted to do and what to take away from us,” Auriemma said. “We lost our balance and we lost our equilibrium a little bit, and I don’t think we were ever able to get it back.”

It was a disaster for the Huskies. Foul trouble limited power forward Aaliyah Edwards, the team’s leading scorer, to 17 minutes. In the second quarter, Sénéchal’s knee buckled, and she managed just 11 minutes in the first half before returning and running gingerly during the third quarter.

Ohio State led by as many as 13 points in the first half before stretching the lead to 18 in the fourth quarter. Freshman forward Cotie McMahon scored 18 of her 23 points in the first 20 minutes, and the Buckeyes led 36-26 at the break. It was the sixth time in NCAA tournament history that Connecticut faced a double-digit halftime deficit. The Huskies have now lost all six of those. That’s the formula, if a team can be so bold.

Ohio State had more than dreams on this day. The Buckeyes played with conviction and moxie.

“We came into this game expecting to win,” said guard Jacy Sheldon, who finished with 17 points and five assists.

Somehow, Sénéchal played through the knee injury and scored 25 points to keep the Huskies in the game. The gritty effort symbolized her team, which for a stretch at midseason barely could put together a lineup of healthy players. But as she walked off the court in obvious pain, the sight represented just how painful this ending would be for the most consistently dominant team in women’s basketball history.

“No matter what happened tonight, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Sénéchal said. “I wouldn’t have done it with anyone else.”

No matter how much Connecticut has won, the program never took advancing in the tournament for granted. Still, the Huskies were stunned.

“It’s a great shock right now,” Sénéchal said.

The previous time the Huskies lost before the Elite Eight was 2005, when Stanford beat them, 76-59, in the Sweet 16. The previous time they failed to go to the Final Four was 2007, when LSU beat them, 73-50, in the Elite Eight. They did extend their Sweet 16 streak to a preposterous 29 in a row, however.

“The problem with streaks is the longer they go, you’re closer to it ending than you are to the beginning of it,” Auriemma said. “And it’s just a matter of time. It’s not like, when will it happen? … It was going to happen sooner rather than later.

“It’s an impossibility to do what we have done already. And you take that in stride and you say, yeah, it was great while it lasted, and it’s a credit to all the players that we had and all the times that you have to perform really, really well at this level.”

As Sénéchal started to cry during the postgame news conference, Auriemma comforted her by patting her on the back. Then he reached under his glasses and wiped his eyes.

Losing tears all flow the same in March. Some just arrive far sooner than expected.