Stranger things have certainly happened.
Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff to win a U.S. Open. Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. Somebody named Roberta Vinci ended Serena Williams’ single-season slam bid at Flushing Meadows. The Falcons blew a 25-point lead with 18 minutes left in the Super Bowl. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviets.
If the sixth-ranked South Carolina women’s basketball team beats No. 1 Connecticut on Monday night, nobody will be screaming “Do you believe in miracles!” on the late ESPN2 broadcast. But it would rank as a fairly shocking upset nonetheless.
UConn will be going for its unprecedented 100th consecutive victory when it faces South Carolina – its 62nd straight at home in Storrs, Conn. The view of the Huskies from the Gamecocks’ and everyone else’s perspective must look like what Secretariat did to Twice a Price when down the stretch at Belmont Park.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley hopes her underdogs can deliver a jolt to the women’s basketball world that current Nos. 2 (Baylor), 3 (Maryland), 5 (Florida State), 7 (Notre Dame), 11 (Texas), 13 (Ohio State), 18 (DePaul) and 22 (South Florida) have already failed to do this season. In a way, UConn’s numbing dominance reflects poorly on everyone else.
“I think it’s good for the game for them to get rocked a little bit,” Staley said of a Huskies team that has only had two of its last 99 wins decided by fewer than 10 points. “They’ve played everybody and haven’t shied away from playing tough competition. We’re going in a tough environment and gonna give it our best shot. Probably everybody in America is going to be cheering for us. Hopefully they’ll send positive vibes our way to Storrs.”
What Geno Auriemma’s program has accomplished is staggering. Before 2017 is over, he’ll have won 1,000 games as coach at UConn since 1985 – an average of about 32 wins a season. The Huskies aim for their fifth in a row and 12th overall NCAA title since 1995.
“Words can’t explain how he’s changed the game in women’s basketball,” said Ricky Moore, the former Westside star who won men’s NCAA titles as both a player (1999) and assistant coach (2014) at UConn.
South Carolina has joined the ranked of women’s basketball elite in the last four years, but they’ve yet to crack the Husky code. The Gamecocks lost 66-54 in a 1-2 showdown in Columbia last year (streak win No. 60). The Gamecocks got thumped 87-62 as the No. 1 team against No. 2 in Storrs two years ago (win No. 22).
This will be former Washington County star guard Allisha Gray’s first crack at the Huskies, making her a key addition to the Gamecocks’ hopes.
“I feel like for those of us who’ve actually been here and got significant minutes (against UConn), we know how significant it is,” said senior Alaina Coates. “We’ve really got to prep the younger ones and newer ones to just how serious it is. I think we’ll have everybody right by game time.”
UConn definitely will be ready with the motivation of No. 100 and a feverish crowd on its side in primetime.
The Huskies last lost on the road to No. 6 Stanford 88-86 in overtime on Nov. 17, 2014. It stands as their only loss in a span of 147 games dating back to the 2013 Big East championship game.
This year’s UConn team was expected to suffer a few growing pains after losing three seniors as the first, second and third picks in the 2016 WNBA draft – including all-world forward Breanna Stewart. Other than a narrow 78-76 win at Florida State in the season opener, however, the Huskies haven’t missed a step.
Moore, in his fourth season as an assistant for the UConn men’s team, said South Carolina will be walking into a super-charged atmosphere on Monday night – which is not necessarily a bad thing for the visitor.
“It’s gonna be electrifying for the women,” Moore said. “Dawn Staley does a great job. She’ll have her team ready to fight. It gonna be full. Not a seat empty in the house. As a player, this is the kind of game you dream of as a kid. I used to want to be the visitor. It’s the kind of venue you’ve got to love, going in there and trying to make everybody quiet.”
South Carolina – which has gotten back on track after a disappointing home stumble to Tennessee two weeks ago – is the last big test on the Huskies’ inevitable road to the Final Four.
“It’s exciting, obviously, to play the No. 1 team in the country, to play them on their floor, to put this team in this environment is exciting,” Staley said. “It’s exciting for women’s basketball.”
Said Gamecocks leading scorer A’ja Wilson. “I think the media is more excited about it than we are.”
Keeping the Huskies streak from hitting triple digits is daunting, but sometimes the hurdle at significant milestones can seem just higher enough to cause even the greatest to trip. In 2012, UConn had the opportunity to extend its record home winning streak to an even 100. It’s opponent was unranked St. John’s, and the Huskies had not lost to an unranked opponent at home in 19 years spanning 261 games.
What seemed like a formality ended in a stunning 57-56 Red Storm upset that left the record standing at 99.
South Carolina will be a part of history either way, but the Gamecocks would prefer being remembered as the streak busters instead of the 100th victim.
“When it comes to Monday, it’s just about heart and competing,” said Wilson. “I feel like we’re in a good place in the season and a good place with this team that it’s really going to help us out.”
Monday the 13th in Storrs would be a good place to shock the women’s basketball world.