Geno Auriemma and UConn are ready for another ride to the top

Auriemma: Final Four loss needed to happen to help UConn grow (0:40)

UConn coach Geno Auriemma says he was the "happiest guy in that building" after his Huskies fell to Mississippi State on a buzzer beater in the national semifinals of the 2017 NCAA tournament. (0:40)

The elevator doors opened, and UConn coach Geno Auriemma stepped out with a bottle of wine in hand. It was after 2 a.m. on the first day of April. Those who'd gone to bed early would wake up in the morning, see news of the women's basketball national semifinals, and perhaps think it was an April Fools' Day prank.

UConn lost? The Huskies' NCAA-record 111-game winning streak was over? Their quest for a fifth straight national championship had ended? Against a team the Huskies beat by 60 points the previous year? All true.

Auriemma, a few hours after the 66-64 overtime loss, had gone up to his hotel room for the wine he'd received as a gift when he'd arrived in Dallas for the Women's Final Four. He was headed back to a lounge area to join family and friends. There would be no celebratory toasts. But neither did Auriemma feel any need to drown sorrows.

Offered condolences on the loss, he smiled and shrugged good-naturedly.

"The kid made a great shot. What are you gonna do?" Auriemma said of Mississippi State's Morgan William and her game winner that just beat the OT buzzer. "They deserved to win. And when you win as much as we have, you gotta be able to accept losing, too."

Indeed, he had handled the loss gracefully, imparting gentle lessons on what went wrong and how to deal with it to his stunned players in the locker room. He knew they didn't need a hammer coming down on them then. Besides, he was almost immediately thinking about 2017-18, when most of them would be returning.

"You know, we've got a chance to be really, really good," Auriemma said as his smile broadened. "It's going to be interesting to see how they respond. I'm looking forward to it."

Then he went off to share the wine, decompress just a little -- and get ready for the whole thing to start over again.

Finding the silver lining

Many months later, Auriemma reflected again on his feelings after that loss.

"I kind of realized it that night, right away: 'Hey, this is a fresh start for us,'" Auriemma said. "This is not the end by any means. We need this kind of energy now.

"It would be unbearable, I think, to go back to campus and start this season with the topic being 113 in a row, if we'd won that game and the next one. Five national championships in a row. To the point where: Don't we ever get any credit for what we're doing right now? Or is it just piling on to what's already been done?"

South Carolina winning its first NCAA title and Mississippi State appearing in its first national championship game were both, from the big-picture perspective of women's basketball's growth, very important.

Auriemma understood that.

"We have created a world where everybody thinks when we play, only one team is allowed to win," said Auriemma, who is nine wins away from 1,000 career coaching victories. "And that's such an unreal world to live in. To the point where people started to criticize us for being that good, and criticize the game. So in a roundabout way, us losing was the best thing that could happen to us and to the actual image of the game."

Yes, but guess who's on top again in the preseason polls? UConn is once more the favorite, returning four starters -- Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson, Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse -- while adding another star in junior transfer Azurá Stevens and bringing in a stellar freshman class. Plus, sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield, who started a handful of games last season, is back and clearly improved, Auriemma says.

From Sept. 30-Oct. 2, juniors Collier and Samuelson participated in a USA Basketball training camp where they held their own alongside WNBA players. They and Williams, a senior, were first-team All-Americans last season.

UConn opens the 2017-18 campaign against Stanford on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio. It's also where the Huskies hope to end the season, as Columbus hosts the Final Four. And while Auriemma rapidly moved on emotionally from March's semifinal loss, he didn't discard it without mining it for value.

Auriemma has never lost the national championship game; UConn is 11-0 in the NCAA finals. But his Huskies have lost seven times in the semifinals: 1991, 1996, 2001, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2017. Some of those losses still bug him a lot, some just a little, some not at all. But he has learned things from each one.

The defeat last season reminded him somewhat of the 2001 semifinal loss to Notre Dame, because of coaching miscues he thinks he made in both games.

UConn led by as many as 16 late in the first half in 2001, but an Irish 3-pointer just before the break cut the margin to 12. Auriemma was angry his team allowed that shot, and laid into his players at halftime. He now says it was the wrong approach with that group, which included then-freshman Diana Taurasi; he should have focused more on what they'd done right in the first half. Notre Dame turned the game around in the second half, winning 90-75.

"In a roundabout way, us losing was the best thing that could happen to us and to the actual image of the game." Geno Auriemma

The 2017 semifinal game was a reversal of the season before, when a senior-dominated UConn team led by Breanna Stewart demolished Mississippi State 98-38 in the Sweet 16. It was a younger group of Huskies in 2017 who then faced a Bulldog squad that had been motivated for a year by the number 60.

"There were so many bad decisions that I made during that game that I would love to go back and redo," Auriemma said of facing Mississippi State. "Why did we not force the tempo more? Why did we get caught up in walking the ball up the floor? Well, that was my fault. We were playing the way they wanted us to play.

"In our half-court offense, some of the things that we tried to do just weren't going to work against them, with how aggressive and physical they were. We needed to go to something different. So when I look back, you can't really say, 'Well, that was a crushing blow, and it tore our hearts out.' No. The ones that kill you are the ones where you do everything right, and you still lose. We didn't do that last year. I don't think we deserved to win that game. Mississippi State did."

Which is what he told his players afterward.

"Coach was honest, as he always is," Collier recalled. "He said we worked really hard, and we surprised a lot of people last season. But we didn't prepare the way we should have for that last game. And because of that, we got the outcome that we did. He told us we had a good season, but we have to prepare differently this season."

Starting another streak?

The loss also reminded Auriemma of UConn's 2008 semifinal defeat. Maya Moore was a freshman at the time, and Tina Charles a sophomore. They were the next in line of truly great UConn players after Taurasi. The Huskies had ended what was, for UConn, a drought -- three consecutive years of missing the Final Four. But they fell in the semis to a Candice Wiggins-led Stanford squad.

"After that game, I was talking to the media and said, 'Look, next year things will be different,'" Auriemma said. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I said, 'You can bet on this: We'll be back.' And then we won two [championships] in a row."

In fact, the Huskies didn't lose again until late December 2010, compiling a 90-game winning streak. National semifinal losses in 2011 and '12 were followed by four titles in a row, led by another superstar in Stewart. And an even longer winning streak.

Scheduling-wise, Auriemma actually tried to set up the Huskies for defeat last season after Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck went 1-2-3 in the 2016 WNBA draft. He thought a loss or two before the 2017 NCAA tournament would do the less experienced Huskies some good.

"And it just didn't happen," he said. "Our guys got more and more confident. We started to really believe that we couldn't lose.

"In all the winning streaks that we've had -- they're so improbable, because what happened that night [against Mississippi State] could have happened numerous times. So you know that the longer it goes where it doesn't happen, the closer you're getting to it happening."

Auriemma feared it would come at the worst time. Actually, so did Taurasi. During the 2017 NCAA tournament, the Huskies legend was watching the HBO series "UConn: The March to Madness" and was alarmed by one sequence shown of practice.

"Diana told me, 'You guys were doing end-of-game situations, and you went five times in a row and missed getting the shot that you wanted,'" Auriemma said of a conversation he had with her after the loss. "And I had said on the show, 'Because we have a hard time executing this stuff, it's going to come back and cost us a game down the road.' And you know what? It did."

"We've got a chance to be really, really good. It's going to be interesting to see how they respond. I'm looking forward to it." Geno Auriemma, hours after UConn's Final Four loss in Dallas

When told he has done well putting the loss into perspective and gaining something positive from it, Auriemma -- now in his 33rd season at UConn -- says part of that is experience. But he acknowledged it's also a lot easier when you already have 11 national championships.

"If that was another loss on top of a bunch of crushing losses, believe me, I wouldn't have been like that," he said. "It would have been more feeling sorry for yourself, more feeling despondent about what happened and questioning everything you do.

"But with winning all we have, you have to be able to say, 'That's why they keep score and play the game.' Because sometimes the other team is allowed to win, too."

Auriemma occasionally veers into a bit of hyperbole about the loss; recently, he suggested that nobody in the arena was happier than he was that night. But his demeanor and words in the wee hours of April 1 were no act.

The Huskies proved themselves the best team over the course of the 2016-17 regular season, but that wasn't the case in the NCAA tournament. As Auriemma watched the championship game, feeling somewhat detached, he knew that.

"I was thinking, 'The two teams that should be playing for the championship now, based on what happened in the tournament, are playing,'" he said. "There's never been one time that I've looked back since that loss and been really, really upset like I have been other times. We didn't have all the answers last year.

"I thought, 'All right. When we go back to practice next year, we're going to be a different team.' And we are. We're going to have more options than we had last year. And I like our chances."