By Shawn McFarland | Hartford Courant (TNS)
At some point, Christyn Williams knew she’d have to rewatch UConn’s loss to Arizona in the 2021 Final Four — the fourth straight time that the Huskies had been bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the national semifinals.
She put it off for most of the spring, but finally turned it on just days before she returned to Storrs in June.
“It took me some time to be able to watch that game over,” said Williams, who scored a team-high 20 points in the 69-59 loss. “It was difficult to watch, it was. We did not have our best game. We did not play our best basketball, and that’s where the immaturity comes from. We were young, we’d never been there before — or, a lot of our guys had never been there before. We were fatigued, there’s a lot of different factors.”
Olivia Nelson-Ododa can’t get that game out of her mind. She missed all seven of her field goal attempts and finished with one point.
“I think about that game a lot, very frequently” she said. “I recently watched film on it, too. Just kind of moving past that game and realizing the things I need to work on: finishing, post moves, getting stronger or continuing that. Looking at it is tough, but it’s also needed for growth.”
When she watches the highlights, she doesn’t recognize herself on the court.
“I’m not the only one who feels like that.”
Evina Westbrook, who played her first season with UConn last year after transferring from Tennessee, understands something has to change for the Huskies to return to the national championship game and, ideally, hang banner No. 12.
The three seniors chalked up the loss to a variety of reasons: A lack of mental toughness, fatigue, a taxing Elite Eight showdown against Baylor and, quite simply, bad vibes. The outspoken Williams, mirroring Geno Auriemma’s comments the night of the loss, thinks the reason for their uncharacteristic play is obvious.
“Immaturity,” she said with a shrug. “It’s that simple. We just have to grow up. Just going through that last year, and being a senior, too, we know what we have to do.”
Westbrook agreed with Williams but noted that the loss no longer haunts the Huskies.
“We haven’t seen that [Final Four] team,” Westbrook said. “We don’t know where that team came from. It was a one-game thing. Unfortunately it was a game we needed to win, but we haven’t seen that team since that game. There’s been a totally different mindset. Our culture, our intensity, our competitiveness is through the roof right now.”
The Huskies are now in the midst of their longest championship dry spell since the mid- 2000s, when they went four seasons (2005-08) without lifting a trophy. Williams and Nelson-Ododa don’t want to join the small group of UConn players that go four years in Storrs without a title.
“We just have to get over that hump, that Final Four hump,” Williams said. “It’s not going to be easy. Me and Liv have been to the Final Four twice now, and we know what we have to do and we’re prepared.”
Westbrook was WNBA draft eligible this spring but returned to UConn citing “unfinished business.” Nelson-Ododa understands what she has to do to avoid a repeat performance of her Final Four struggles from four months back. And Williams, the former No. 1 overall recruit who’s played through both highs and lows in Storrs, said she’s feeling the best she’s ever felt on the court thanks to a strong finish to the 2020-21 season which saw her emerge as a reliable scoring threat next to then-freshman Paige Bueckers.
“I’m trying to kill everybody on the court,” Williams said, who averaged 16.9 points in her final 10 games of last season. “That’s it. I know I’m like, ‘Ha ha, hee hee, Christyn,’ but, I’ve got to kick some ass if we’re being completely honest here. The same mindset I had from the Big East through the rest of the tournament, that’s what I’m bringing. I’m killing everybody that steps on the court.”
Westbrook and Nelson-Ododa, now with a year under their belt as leaders, see and feel a difference in this year’s team. The rest of the roster does, too. “We’re still a very young team,” sophomore guard Nika Muhl said. “We’ve got three seniors this year and our three seniors, you can really tell that they worked a lot in this offseason during the summer. They came here ready. They are not playing. It’s different vibes this year. Like you can tell people are mad. You can tell they need redemption. We need redemption.”