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Geno Auriemma has UConn women living in 100-win fantasy land

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma could never have imagined leading the Huskies to 100 consecutive wins. On Monday night, that fantasy became a reality.

Three weeks before the start of this year’s women’s college basketball season, UConn coach Geno Auriemma sat in his office contemplating the prospect of finishing this year without a loss. He considered the suggestion laughable, preposterous, pick your own adjective to describe such crazy.

“To think we will go undefeated this year, we would be setting ourselves up for failure,” Auriemma said. “Stewie [Breanna Stewart], Moriah Jefferson and [Morgan] Tuck were 151-5 in their career. That’s not the real world. How long do you think you can live that world? I don’t know when it is going to happen. It might happen early, it might happen late, but it’s going to happen. And I’m okay with it because we will coach them through it and they will see that’s the real world, and the world everyone lives in.”

Four months later, UConn remains in Fantasy Land. On Tuesday night at Gampel Pavilion, UConn won its 100th consecutive game, a 66-55 win over No. 6 South Carolina. They are the only program in NCAA basketball history at any level—men or women—to win 100 consecutive games.

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“We don’t have a magic formula,” Auriemma said. “We don’t go into a lab and conjure up and mix up things and come up with Young Frankenstein. We don’t have that. Unless you are in our locker room every day, at our practice every day, and go through what these kids go through and what they put up with every day from us as a coaching staff, it is impossible to explain.”

It has been 820 days since UConn lost (821 if you read this on Tuesday) and given the talent discrepancy between UConn and everyone else in the American Athletic Conference, the winning streak is going to continue well into the NCAA tournament. The truth is, it is hard to see this team losing again for the foreseeable future. They are the top team in the country this year, and next year’s team will include 6-6 Duke transfer Azura Stevens and Megan Walker, the No. 1 recruit in America. ESPN commentator Kara Lawson was being dead serious when she said during Monday night’s broadcast that the consecutive winning streak could reach 200 games. Their last defeat came on Nov. 17, 2014 when Stanford pulled out an 88-86 win in overtime at Maples Pavilion. That win ended a 47-game winning UConn winning streak. (This interactive from the New York Times provides a great visual.)

It’s understandable for those who only intermittently watch women’s basketball to assume that this was expected for UConn once again. But that’s not the case. This was the first time since 2008 that the Huskies did not have a returning first-team All-American. They also entered the season with just two returning starters and questions all over the floor about who could score in late game situations.

“We haven’t been in a situation where there are so many question marks about new roles people have to step into,” Auriemma said in October. “The conversation here among our team and coaches hasn’t touched at all about who No. 1 is but more that this is the first time we have had so many undefined roles.”

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But what Auriemma didn’t expect was that the team’s top four players—junior forward Katie Lou Samuelson, sophomore forward Napheesa Collier, junior Kia Nurse and junior wing Gabby Williams­—would immediately form a cohesive unit. Nor could he predict each player raising their offensive game, particularly Collier, who is averaging 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds after averaging 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds as a sophomore.

“I have had some teams that were so good that we could not lose,” Auriemma said. “I never wanted to say that but we knew it because we were that good, that talented and that committed. But then some teams need to get beat in order to reset them and face reality. Hey, this is the real world. If you play great, you have a chance to win, but you might not. If you don’t play great, you have a good chance to lose. Then you have to figure it out. I think that needs to happen.”

It didn’t happen on Tuesday, though South Carolina was very formidable through two-and-a-half quarters. Rare do we see an opponent shoot 50 percent from the field, but South Carolina went 6 of 12 from the field in the opening quarter behind a patient offense playing through senior star forward A’ja Wilson. The second quarter was even better. The Gamecocks led 27-24 with less than six minutes left in the half, and as they drained the clock on possession after possession—followed by a jumper late in the shot clock—you sensed that they had figured out a formula to take UConn deep into the final minutes.

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But South Carolina could not finish the opening half. UConn went on a 7-0 run late to take a 35-29 lead into halftime, with Collier and Williams finishing with 29 of UConn’s 35 first-half points. The Gamecocks cut the lead to 37-35 midway in the third quarter but that was the closest they would get. UConn tightened up on defense—holding South Carolina to a 2-for-11 to end the third quarter—and entered the final 10 minutes up 51-39. The final quarter was a pep rally, as famous UConn alums such as Sue Bird, Maya Moore and Stewart whooped it up in the crowd. It was UConn’s61st consecutive win at home. Williams, the most athletic player in the country, led the team with 26 points, 14 rebounds and four steals.

Auriemma said prior to the game he had no special plans to celebrate the win—“He’s pretty sick of the 100 talk,” said Patrick McKenna, the Huskies’ stalwart sports information director—but he did give a nod to this team after the game. And they deserve it.

“There are a lot of wins up in the stands tonight and a lot of championships,” Auriemma said, talking about his former players in the crowd.  “If this would have been done by last year’s team, I think it would have been less heroic because it would have been, ‘Well of course they are supposed to do it. Look who they have. They have the best three best players in America.’ For this team to do it, given where we started and where people projected us to be given who we had coming back and given who everyone else coming back, for them to do it, I think is very appropriate.”