Last Tuesday’s game between Connecticut and Notre Dame for women’s college basketball’s national championship wasn’t much of an athletic contest.
Connecticut completed an unbeaten season with a 79-58 thrashing of the Irish to capture their second straight title. This game’s outcome, like many the Huskies played this year, was decided in a blur, as they held Notre Dame, a previously unbeaten team themselves, to 20 points in the second half. Afterwards, the Huskies basked in the glow of another perfect season – the fifth in the history of the program – and the ninth title overall, a new NCAA record.
And while Connecticut reveled, the rest of women’s basketball despaired, not just over the idea that the Huskies will start next season as heavy favorite, but what their domination means for the sport in the long term. To say that Connecticut dominates whatever conversation there is about women’s basketball in this country is a considerable understatement.
Since head coach Geno Auriemma arrived in 1985, the Huskies have been as close to a juggernaut as exists in sports today. Their streak of 70 straight wins from 2001 to 2003 is surpassed in college history only by their 90 consecutive victories from 2008 to 2010. This year marked the seventh straight that UConn has been to the Final Four, and with the reigning National Player of the Year, Breanna Stewart, set to return for two more years, you’d be hard-pressed to envision anyone else stopping their domination.
But Connecticut’s continued hegemony over the game raises all kinds of questions about the health of the nation’s most popular team sport for women. While it might be good to give a sport that struggles to achieve footing in the nation’s sports consciousness a recognizable face, you have to wonder if it’s good to have Connecticut be the only face.
The days of women’s basketball being a regional--and mostly Southern--sport are over. And that’s probably a good thing, as UConn’s performance opens the game to the media-fertile Northeast. In the process, however, that supremacy has swallowed the once imposing figure of Tennessee and its legendary coach, Pat Summitt, which set the standard by which the sport operated for 30 years.
The Lady Vols, as they are anachronistically known, won eight championships under Summit, the last in 2008. But Connecticut kept coming, and with Summitt retiring two years ago to battle early onset Alzheimer’s, it’s difficult to imagine Tennessee regrouping.
In recent years, Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford, and, to a lesser degree, Maryland, have added themselves to the mix, but none of them seem to have Connecticut’s consistency. No doubt it galls women, who are given few chances to coach in the more lucrative men’s game, that a man has ascended to the top of their sport.
And the fact that Auriemma is that man may be an even greater affront to many. He never misses a chance to thumb his nose at the genteel conventions of women’s ball,
The question going forward is: can someone step forward to challenge Connecticut before people stop caring about the sport outside of Storrs?
Your questions and comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow Milton Kent on Twitter: @sportsatlarge.