- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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TAMPA, Fla. -- On a night when a leak in the roof of the St. Pete Times Forum offered a taste of the rainstorms outside, Connecticut wasn't especially interested in the silver lining of the cloud that hung over the team after an 82-73 semifinal loss against Stanford.
"This time of the year, and especially in this environment, unless you win, there's really not a lot that you can say that's going to make any of the players up here or any of the players in the locker room feel any better," coach Geno Auriemma said. "There's no words to describe what it means to put everything, you know, your heart and soul, into something and come up short."
For all the championship history associated with the coach and the program, the tournament's top seed looked very much like a group playing its first Final Four -- something that wasn't true for a Stanford team in exactly the same situation.
Connecticut thrived for much of the season through its own version of shock-and-awe basketball. Teams hoping to hang around long enough to catch some breaks down the stretch found themselves glassy-eyed after just a few minutes when the Huskies pushed tempo, rained in 3-pointers and broke wills on the offensive glass.
Coach and players stressed all season that the team made its way with its defense, but the offense was still better than just about anyone else's offense.
Entering Sunday's game, Connecticut had outscored opponents by an average of 51-29 in the first half this season and had trailed at the break just four times. And even in the two biggest exceptions -- against North Carolina and Rutgers -- runs finally came in the second half en route to victory.
But the shots the Huskies hit all season never went down in Tampa. For just the second time all season, they failed to shoot 40 percent in at least one half of basketball. And instead of taking a figurative step back to search for better possessions, and with its senior point guard on the bench in early foul trouble, Connecticut was too eager to take a literal step back and fire the first available shot Sunday.
"If we could have executed better on offense -- I think really if we could have made some more shots," junior guard Renee Montgomery said of the difference. "We really got a lot of open looks, and pretty much throughout the season, we've made the majority of those shots and it's gotten us momentum and then we've continued to make more shots."
More than any other opponent, Stanford also made Connecticut feel the absence of injured guard Kalana Greene, the versatile junior who locked down Stanford star Candice Wiggins when Connecticut beat Stanford in the Virgin Islands earlier this season (although Greene's job was made easier by a supporting case at Stanford that wasn't nearly as good in November as it is now).
"I think we missed them all year, but this game, it really shows," Montgomery said of Greene and Mel Thomas (both were sidelined with ACL injuries). "We had to have shorter people guarding Candice a lot, and she was able to get her shot off pretty much whenever she wanted."
But all the mistakes of planning and execution that contributed to the night's loss are in their own ways part of the reason for optimism. And why after a little time to decompress -- which won't start for at least a couple of days, given Auriemma's WBCA duties, which will keep him in town through Tuesday's final -- the coach might look forward to the long weeks and months ahead that he mentioned while saying he believes his team will be back on this stage in 365 days for next year's event in St. Louis (give or take a few days).
Connecticut loses four seniors whose legacy will be found lacking only by the impossible standards set by those who came before them. Charde Houston, Brittany Hunter, Ketia Swanier and Thomas will be missed on the court and even more so off of it, but in the cold reality of college basketball's quadrennial cycles, they won't be as difficult for Auriemma to replace as the five starters fellow Final Four participants Tennessee and LSU will be without when those teams reconvene next fall.
Connecticut returns three Big East freshmen of the year honorees in Montgomery, Tina Charles and Maya Moore. Moore also will enter her sophomore season as a first-team All-American and likely preseason favorite for national player of the year honors. And Montgomery will return as a two-time all-conference selection and certain All-American contender in her senior season. That's a nice base, without even getting to a healthy Greene and a recruiting class that includes the consensus top player in Elena Delle Donne and fellow McDonald's and WBCA All-American Tiffany Hayes.
No matter what happens in Tuesday night's title game, Connecticut is poised to enter next season as the No. 1 team -- the same way it entered this NCAA tournament.
The reality of life at Connecticut is that the season always will be judged in relation to the Final Four. And while that, in addition to the farewell for four seniors who weathered a lot in the post-Diana Taurasi era, cast a pall over Sunday's loss, it also obscures the truth that one lost title might feed one or more in the years to come.
"The one thing I will say is it's unfortunate that the season comes down to one weekend," Auriemma said. "And if it doesn't go your way, the other five months seem to have no meaning. And that's why this is such a difficult game to lose, or the next game, if you lose that one, because all you remember now, today, at this point is what happened those 40 minutes. You don't remember all the things that led to getting here.
"So I want them to remember the things they did to get here and what our seniors accomplished. Life's thrown a lot of things at us this season -- took away two of our players, limited one of them. And now the fairy tale didn't have a happy ending, but that's life."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.