On a snowy March weekend in Connecticut six months ago, the women’s basketball team saw its season end in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Less than 100 miles away from UConn’s campus is Boston, the site of the 2006 Final Four. The Owls hope to be there when their season nears its close next March.
The Owls are coming off the best season in the program’s history. A 28-4 overall record has earned them their first preseason national ranking.
ESPN’s preseason poll tabbed the Owls as No. 20. The Associated Press lists them at No. 21, and Street & Smith’s Magazine has the Owls ranked at No. 19.
All of that becomes inconsequential if the Owls fail to improve on last season’s success, coach Dawn Staley said at Atlantic Ten Conference Media Day earlier this month.
Staley explained that the Owls’ matchups with perennially ranked opponents like Tennessee, Rutgers and Georgia are important, but said nothing is more critical than beating the teams the Owls are expected to beat.
“If we’re successful in the Tennessee game, and then we have a letdown in another game … it cancels itself out,” Staley said. “We explain to our players that it’s no good to beat Tennessee, then lose a game to someone you’re supposed to beat.
“Maybe we won’t win 28 basketball games, but we’re going to make enough noise for people to know that this is not a one-hit wonder. It’s never going to be that way.”
Staley’s team enters its season with some national attention. They led the nation with a 25-game winning streak that spanned nearly four months. They haven’t lost a regular season game at the Liacouras Center since Jan. 2, 2004.
Senior Candice Dupree is the Owls’ cornerstone. She’s who opposing teams spend hours of practice time preparing to defend. An all-America candidate last season, Dupree led the team in scoring for the second straight year, quietly posting 16.3 points and 9.1 rebounds.
Dupree will be looked to for even more support this season after the Owls lost two key players to graduation. Forward Ari Moore and point guard Cynthia Jordan, both three-year starters, represented the winningest class in school history, with 83 victories since they entered as freshmen. Moore and Jordan contributed a combined 22.3 points and nine rebounds a game for the Owls.
With Moore and Jordan out of the lineup, junior forward Kamesha Hairston will need to have another impressive year.
Sophomore Ashley Morris, Jordan’s replacement, is the team’s new starter at point guard. Morris said the Owls are capable of handling any added pressure surrounding this season.
“Honestly, I don’t think this basketball team concerns itself with rankings or any of that stuff,” Morris said. “We go out every night and we play all-out, regardless of whether we’re unranked. I don’t think we’re going to get into that stuff. We go hard every night.”
Physical size, a deficiency of the team prior to Staley’s tenure, has become an advantage for the Owls, who boast six players 6-feet or taller.
One of those players is freshman Shenita Landry, a 6-2 forward, who has scoring and rebounding potential. She led Rufus King High in Milwaukee, Wis., in both categories in her senior season, when she was named to the all-conference first team.
Junior guard Fatima Maddox will get her first playing time with the Owls in January, after she finishes serving a penalty as a result of transferring from New Mexico last fall. Maddox has NCAA Tournament experience and will supplement Morris at the point.
The road to Boston will be rigorous for the Owls, who now have a target permanently tagged to their jerseys. Staley said that is no excuse for her team.
“Every program goes through rebuilding years,” Staley said. “I’m going to try to not be a part of such a year, or be a part of a program that has to go through that. We’re going to equip our kids with enough knowledge to win some games on the basketball court, and win some games we’re not supposed to win.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com. Staff writer John Kopp contributed to this report.