Saturday, May 12, 2018

UConn’t Go Undefeated

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Last year about this time, Morgan William, a guard on the Mississippi State women’s basketball team, swept into the national consciousness and took center stage in this column.  This year, and for identically amazing reasons, Arike Ogunbowale, a guard on the Notre Dame women’s basketball team and owner of the rainbow jump shot heard ‘round the world, gets the nod.
The unbelievable connection between these players is this: both made improbable, even divine shots to beat an essentially unchallenged women’s basketball team from the University of Connecticut in the national semifinal. 

That isn’t where the story or the connection between these two players ends.  In an incredible coincidence, Ogunbowale’s winning shot advanced Notre Dame to last Sunday’s championship game where the Irish met…yup…William and her Bulldogs teammates in a battle of iconic UConn slayers.  Ogunbowale hit another game-winning shot to get the better of William’s Bulldogs, but despite the championship showdown, both will remain synonymous with their semi-final daggers-to-the-heart of UConn, the most dominant/dynastic/filthy-good athletic institution of viral winning in all the land.

There is no team, in any sport of any significance, like the UConn women’s basketball team.  Check this roll call of accomplishments: 16 Final Fours and 10 national championships this millennium and a total…TOTAL…of 14 losses since 2008, including four undefeated seasons.  That is complete domination of a sport.  As if that resume wasn’t enough to quantify just what William and Mississippi State and Ogunbowale and Notre Dame accomplished in consecutive seasons, consider this reality-bending statistic: UConn had won four consecutive national championships entering the 2017 NCAA tournament and was undefeated before both the Mississippi State game last year and the Notre Dame game this year. 

And then they weren’t undefeated anymore.

On paper, the Bulldogs and Irish, despite being teams of consequence among all others lurking below UConn’s other-worldly level of play, had no legitimate shot of winning either game.  The outcome was known, the game a formality – until it wasn’t.

An admission: I don’t like UConn.  They are a cyborg, a grotesque machine that has hijacked the competitive balance of an entire sport.  Supporters will laud them as the new standard for women’s college basketball.  But over 15 years into the UConn-and-everyone-else run, their dominance, unlike the rising tide, has failed to raise all boats/the level of play of other basketball blue-bloods.
Or maybe it has, if not in totality then at least in moments - William and Ogunbowale have earned that acknowledgement.   

That teams like Mississippi State and Notre Dame and players like William and Ogunbowale are out there, trying, competing and ultimately defeating this overwhelming and intimidating Death Star-like force of basketball destruction is just, well, phenomenal.  In facing UConn, the easy play would be to give one’s best but to accept ultimate defeat – that’s what UConn’s dominance does to the human psyche.  To see two players and two teams overcome that, to be wholly unaccepting of that, to know that at least in one game, on one night that victory is possible – despite all statistical analysis to the contrary - is thoroughly inspirational. 

The ability to harness such self-confidence, such fortitude in face of external doubt and a truly daunting task is a gift from these two women and these two teams.  See, you don’t stare down the bully and beat such odds - you…don’t…beat…UConn – unless you legitimately believe you can.  There has to be some little light, an eternal internal flame that enables greatness in otherwise overwhelming circumstances. 

Call it heart.  Call it competitive will.  Call it whatever you want.  The classification is immaterial.  What matters is they did it – they stared down the giant villain.  They did for themselves, their teammates and their universities.  They also did it, knowingly or not, for anyone else who has ever been doubted, told not to bother, told they aren’t good enough or that a task can’t be accomplished.  When in those situations, remember the single loss on UConn’s resume the last two years, remember William and Ogunbowale, and know that an improbable, last second buzzer-beater over a so-called superior foe – that greatness - is within us all. 

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