The UConn women's basketball team was in full-on dynasty mode.
It was March 31, 2017, as the Huskies took the court in the national semifinals at American Airlines Center in Dallas. UConn was riding a 111-game winning streak and seeking an NCAA title that would be its fifth in a row, seventh in nine years and 12th overall.
But six years later, the Huskies are still "stuck" on 11 national championships -- as comical as that sounds.
UConn, a No. 2 seed in the 2023 women's NCAA tournament, faces third-seeded Ohio State on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, ABC) in a Sweet 16 matchup in the Seattle 3 Regional. The Huskies are trying to get to their 15th consecutive women's Final Four.
But a ticket to Dallas would also mean a return to the scene of the crime, if you will, the arena where Mississippi State's buzzer-beater ended the Huskies' 2017 title hopes -- and started a run of historic upsets, bad luck and two of the most memorable shots in March Madness history. UConn lost in the national semifinals for four straight tournaments before falling in last season's title game, the first time the program had reached the NCAA final and not won it.
In a season in which the sport's focus has been on other places -- mainly unbeaten No. 1 South Carolina, which won it all in Dallas in 2017 -- UConn's dynasty hasn't disappeared, but it has dimmed. The Final Four streak remains the standard-bearer for consistent excellence in women's or men's college basketball, something no other program is close to. But dynasties need championships.
And the Huskies are consistently in the mix for titles. With guard Azzi Fudd back in the lineup after battling injuries for much of the season, the Huskies handily won their NCAA tournament early-round games. They've overcome myriad injuries and illness this season, both with the players and coach Geno Auriemma, but now are back on the very familiar ground of having a Final Four in sight.
"Everything was a struggle. Everything was hard," Auriemma said after Monday's second-round victory over Baylor. "And for us to be in the position that we're in -- to go to the same place where so many other UConn teams have gone, yet having gone through so much more than I think any other UConn team has had to go through -- I was really proud of them. Because I've been through a lot of these, but they haven't."
The last-second heroics by Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale against UConn in the 2018 Final Four added yet another chapter to the fierce rivalry.
UConn's woes began in August, when 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers -- a key part of the Huskies' Final Four teams the past two years -- was lost for the season to an ACL injury. Freshman Ice Brady was also ruled out for 2022-23 because of a knee injury in October.
Dorka Juhász missed seven games because of a broken thumb suffered in November. Fudd injured her knee in December, Caroline Ducharme suffered a concussion in January (missed 13 games), and Auriemma missed four games between December and January, feeling under the weather as he also grieved the loss of his mother. Fudd was injured again in January after returning to action, and didn't come back until March; in total she has played 14 of UConn's 36 games.
Yet in spite of all of it, the Huskies are two victories away from the program's 23rd Final Four -- but six years since a national championship, a long time in UConn parlance. They have continued to recruit well and play well; they are still, in most ways, the Huskies we have known for a long time. But with no trophy, the mojo isn't quite the same.
Do all the dots connect to mean something bigger for the UConn program and women's basketball in general? Or is it just a matter of consecutive Final Four misfortunes for the Huskies? It's both: A growing talent pool choosing various programs all over the country, the transfer portal and other schools' commitment of resources have expanded the number of potential national championship contenders. That said, some of UConn's Final Four losses in recent years were less about anything the Huskies did wrong and more about what their opponents did right.
After winning national championships in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004, the Huskies fell short of the Final Four for three consecutive years. But they returned in 2008, and by the time they reached the 2017 national semifinals, it seemed as if they had become unconquerable. Until one shot changed that.
"I think women's basketball took a huge turn when Mississippi State beat UConn," said Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, whose No. 8 seed Rebels beat top-seeded Stanford to advance to the Sweet 16. "I was in the crowd, and I was like, 'Whoa.' You couldn't even wrap your head around someone beating UConn at the time.
"And then once that happened, we saw what? Other teams starting to do it."
Here's a look at how each season has ended for UConn, going back to that March 2017 night in Dallas, when the longest winning streak in Division I basketball ended and a title "drought" began.
2017: Mighty Morgan
UConn took a 9-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame came storming back and took down the Huskies 81-76.
All the momentum seemed in UConn's favor going against Mississippi State in the national semifinals' second game of the night in Dallas. It wasn't just their winning streak, which had shattered the school's own previous record of 90. But just the year before, UConn had beaten Mississippi State by 60 points in the NCAA tournament. That 2016 UConn team was the last led by Breanna Stewart, but the Huskies still had future WNBA players Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson, Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams and Crystal Dangerfield on the court in 2017.
Bulldogs guard Morgan William had scored 41 points to beat Baylor in the regional final, and she brought that magic with her to Dallas. Mississippi State got off to a hot start, leading 36-28 at halftime. But UConn rallied, and the game went into overtime.
William was the smallest person on the court, but she made the biggest shot. Her jumper over Gabby Williams swished just after the OT buzzer sounded, giving Mississippi State the 66-64 victory. American Airlines Center erupted, including Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, a proud Mississippi State alum in attendance.
2018: Arike's dagger
Arizona pulls off the upset of UConn to make it an all-Pac-12 title game against Stanford.
Lightning couldn't strike twice, could it? It did. Once again, UConn headed into the NCAA tournament unbeaten and left devastated by a buzzer-beating shot in overtime in the national semifinals.
In one of women's hoops' most heated rivalries, Notre Dame vs. UConn, Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale made one of the biggest shots in NCAA tournament history. Ogunbowale's jumper with 1 second left in the extra period gave the Irish a 91-89 victory.
"We had an amazing run for five months," Auriemma said. "That's just the way it is. One weekend in March gets to decide your season."
2019: Irish strike again
Aliyah Boston and South Carolina defeat the UConn Huskies 64-49 to win the 2022 women's national championship game.
It looked as if UConn would get revenge for its 2018 semifinal loss to Notre Dame, but Ogunbowale got the best of the Huskies again. She had 14 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter, when the Irish rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat UConn in the semifinals a second season in a row. The loss ended the careers of seniors Collier and Samuelson, the last class at UConn to win a national championship (their freshman season in 2016).
"She's an almost impossible matchup one-on-one," Auriemma said of Ogunbowale, as UConn for the first time lost in the Final Four three years in a row.
2021: Arizona upset
With no NCAA tournament in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, UConn returned to the Final Four in the bubble in San Antonio. The Huskies were considered 14-point favorites for their semifinal matchup with the Arizona Wildcats, who had never advanced to the Final Four before. Paige Bueckers, the national player of the year as a freshman, led UConn.
But the Huskies' semifinal woes continued as the Wildcats clamped down on UConn's offense in a 69-59 upset. Arizona guard Aari McDonald had 26 points to set up a national championship matchup with Stanford that once again left UConn on the outside looking in.
This time, Auriemma took issue with his team's maturity, saying, "It was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done."
2022: Final magic ends
The one thing that had never happened to UConn in 21 previous Final Four appearances happened in this one: The Huskies lost in the national championship game.
After beating Stanford in the semis, the Huskies entered their matchup with South Carolina with an 11-0 record in the NCAA title game. But they ran into a Gamecocks team that played as well as it had all season, controlling the game throughout in a 64-49 victory.
Bueckers dealt with a knee injury that kept her out almost three months of the 2021-22 season, but she was back for the NCAA tournament and helped guide UConn to the Final Four in her home state of Minnesota. However, the Huskies really weren't a match for the Gamecock in the final.
"They deserved it 100%," Auriemma said. "They were the best team all year."