Even In Defeat, UConn's Effect On Women's Sports Endures
The most successful team in college sports history changed everything for a generation
The longest winning streak in college sports history came to an end this past weekend. The University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team’s run of 111 straight victories ended with a last-second overtime loss to Mississippi State during the Women’s Final Four tournament. The lady Huskies remain the most successful college sports program in the country, with eleven national titles, over forty conference regular season championship wins, and the two longest winning streaks in both men’s and women’s college basketball. While the Huskies’ first loss since 2014 ended a monumental run, it can’t impact their unmatched impact on sports.
Women's basketball has been an emerging sport for decades. From the birth of the sport in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the success of Title IX in 1972 and the founding of the WNBA in 1996, women’s basketball fought a long battle for respect. The Huskies pushed the sport forward like no other team, breaking barriers and records, and influencing a generation of female athletes. Like Red Sox Nation or Patriots Nation, UConn built a following. Rabid fandom is not unique to sports, but it was for women's college basketball.
I was one of those fans. I grew up attending UConn basketball camps and, like many of the young women who attend seasonal games at Gampel Pavilion, I watched players like Rebecca Lobo and Jen Rizzotti come into their own as players during the 1990s. I followed their careers from successful Division 1 players to the Olympic team, the WNBA, and successful careers in coaching and professional sports. The program, built under the tutelage of head coach Geno Auriemma, launched athletes such as Rebecca Lobo, Svetlana Abrosimova, Nikesha Sales, and others. They dominated the court at UConn and became role models to women in basketball and beyond.
One of my idols was UConn point guard Rizzotti. Born and raised in Connecticut, Rizzotti would lead the 1995 UConn team to their 35–0 perfect season and their first national championship. She would make the Olympic team in 1996 and later play in the WNBA.
“The interest in women's basketball grew exponentially in my four years at UConn,” Rizzotti says today. “It got to the point that every young girl in the state looked up to us as role models and wanted to be involved in basketball. We took a lot of pride in how we represented ourselves and made it clear that excelling in the classroom and playing the game the right way was just as important as winning.”
Fresh off of UConn’s first undefeated season in 1995, the following year would turn out to be a landmark for women in sports, with softball, soccer, and basketball teams all earning gold medals at the 1996 Olympics. For the first time, female athletes were launched into the spotlight.
“We saw fathers of little girls begin to appreciate what we were capable of and think about women's athletics in a whole different light,” says Rizzotti. “It was a wonderful time to be a part of the program and see the positive influence we could have on so many people of different generations.”
Rizzotti would eventually retire from professional basketball and become the head coach of the University of Hartford Women's basketball program. After 17 seasons there, she was recently appointed head coach at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She stills see the influence of the sport as being bigger than basketball.
“I have an opportunity to influence these young women at an age just before they are ready to go out into the real world,” says coach Rizzotti. “I take pride in challenging them to grow as people, students, and basketball players. My job is to put obstacles in front of them and then teach them how to overcome adversity.”