Confetti rained on them from what felt like the heavens Tuesday night at New Orleans Arena, showering the UConn women with trimmings befitting a national champion.
Only this time, a piece just might have actually come from heaven.
It would have come from Ann Miller.
Ann, who made the UConn women one of her passions, died early Monday morning after a long battle with cancer. She fought to stay alive long enough for her Huskies to beat Notre Dame the other night at the Final Four.
"Just an update. Ann is comfortable," Sandy Brouwer wrote Sunday night on Miller's Facebook page, awash in tributes now. "She is unable to be awake now but I have the UConn game on for her so maybe she can hear it. I truly believe she has held on until game night. Hopefully peace tonight. Thanks everyone for all the kind thoughts and words. Ann was able to read or hear most of them."
Here is Ann Miller:
"Ann was a woman who grabbed life by the tail and swung it around her head yelling 'yippee!!' at the top of her lungs," Mary Cahill wrote. "She gave us the gift of laughter and could always make us see the hysterical humor in any situation. You will be missed."
You probably didn't know Ann. But so many UConn fans are Ann. She represents them, an illustration that Geno Auriemma's program occupies a unique perch in the pantheon of sports fandoms. It has engendered the world's most maternal and paternal fans.
It is no secret that many, perhaps most, UConn women's fans are near, at or into retirement. Except that age produces perspective. Maybe that's why the program has such familial rhythms.
Ann Miller is the best illustration yet that what the women of Storrs do is important. They play a game, sure. But they are an outlet, a beacon, an inspiration and a pastime for so many people who are older, ill, incapacitated or just not able to get around like the old days.
And when you are older and you can't rely on as many things, you've always got the Huskies.
Ann Miller reminds us of that.
We need that occasionally.
And that's what Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey do best: remind their players they are part of something bigger. Bigger than the program, the university. They are part of being the best part of the day for people they've never met. People who need them.
Not that Auriemma's players need more pressure. The coach even called this season's four losses before the Final Four a "colossal failure." Former players talk tradition and legacy. It's a burden for 18-year-old kids. They all say, though, "that's why we come here."
They come here, too, to win national championships. Which they did Tuesday. Quite the juxtaposition, though, to be reminded you're part of something bigger when you are celebrated in the middle of New Orleans. Quite the cacophony on the European soccer riot known as Bourbon Street. Yet there are people back home who can't be part of it. And so you play for them, represent them and honor them.
Ann Miller's death reminds us of that. It's a sobering message, perhaps best conveyed on the night the Huskies won their eighth national championship.
I knew Annie. How she loved the Huskies. She was born in Putnam and did some freelance writing covering the Connecticut Sun. She brightened up the press room. Big Red Sox fan. The first one to tease when the Yankees lost. I will miss her.
"RIP my friend," wrote Cori Burrell Wrobel. "You will have the best seat in the house (Tuesday) as you watch our beloved Huskies fight for the national championship. If they fight half as hard as you battled that bastard cancer, they will breeze to a win. Thanks for being a good friend over the years. You always had a positive spin on everything, and fought your fight with cancer with humor and grace. Thanks for the laughs, and the memories of the UConn games."
Sue Wilden wrote: "Will be cheering for UConn Tuesday night as a tribute to my friend Ann Miller. She loved that team so much. Rest easy now."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.