Back in 2016, the UConn women’s basketball team won their 11th national title, beating Oregon State in the Final Four and Syracuse in the national title game. After five consecutive years of having their season end in the Final Four and losing one tournament due to COVID-19, the Huskies got over the hump Friday.
“I’m always amazed when you lose 5 straight final fours and people say your program’s falling apart,” head coach Geno Auriemma said after the game.
Getting over that hump comes in a season where it’s been everything but healthy for the Huskies. The hits kept coming when Dorka Juhasz suffered a wrist injury in the Elite Eight on Monday, ending her season. Juhasz made it to Minneapolis for Friday’s Final Four contest and will return for one final season.
Everything went exactly to plan for UConn in the first two minutes as they made two field goals and kept Stanford off the boards. Stanford regained their footing, cutting the deficit down to one, but the Huskies were one step ahead.
To wrap up the first quarter, the Huskies stuffed out the Cardinal. Evina Westbrook blocked Haley Jones from getting a shot off in the final 10 seconds as Azzi Fudd collected the defensive rebound. Paige Bueckers tried to blow the roof off with a bucket at the buzzer, but her shot came up just short.
The second quarter belonged to Westbrook, who shot 3-6 from the field and 3-4 from downtown. Despite being down six, the Cardinal reeled the Huskies in and took the lead as Jones completed a layup following a turnover from Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
The foul trouble also trickled in during the second quarter. Fudd, Aaliyah Edwards and Nelson-Ododa all collected their second foul, and with Juhasz unavailable due an injury she suffered Monday, the Huskies needed their frontcourt to stay out of foul trouble.
Thanks to a bucket from Nika Muhl and the defense containing Lacie Hull at the buzzer, the Huskies were up one point going into the halftime break. The half wasn’t perfect as the Cardinal were dominating in the paint, but there was still a lot of work to do and time to do it.
UConn scored first to begin the second half as Nelson-Ododa went 1-2 from the free throw line, but Haley Jones made a pullup jumper to tie the contest at 28. Stanford recaptured the lead after a three-pointer from Asthen Prechtel, but Bueckers answered to give UConn the lead right back before they called a timeout.
Stanford did not sniff the lead again until Jones converted two free throws following a Westbrook foul, but Christyn Williams made her first three-pointer of the game to give UConn the advantage late in the frame.
UConn ended the quarter up two points as Stanford came up short on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, and the defense played a critical role in the low-scoring affair. Three players scored four points in the frame and both teams made a combined nine field goals as each team collected at least five boards.
The offenses woke up in the fourth quarter. Within the first three minutes, the Huskies had made two field goals and three free throws while Stanford converted two field goals of their own. One of those buckets included Nelson-Ododa spinning around a defender, drawing the foul and scoring the basket.
After Lexie Hull scored to cut the Cardinal deficit to six points, the offenses fell quiet until Bueckers deflected a pass and came up with the steal. Left all alone, Bueckers drove to the lane and got the crowd on their feet.
As the minutes winded down, Stanford started to heat up offensively. Jones answered two free throws from Edwards by making the layup and then converting two free throws after UConn stepped out of bounds. She then committed two fouls in a span of eight seconds, one of which was an offensive foul leading to a Stanford timeout.
The final minute of this contest left everyone on the edge of their seats. It started with Fudd committing a turnover, leading to a Lacie Hull three-pointer that made it a one-possession game. Edwards then got a fast break opportunity and gave the Huskies their first field goal in four minutes and 50 seconds.
Fudd rebounded a missed three-point attempt from Stanford and subsequently converted two free throws, but Prechtel followed suit with her second three-pointer of the game. Following a Stanford timeout, UConn turned the ball over and Jones capitalized just outside of the paint.
It remained a two-point game again after Fudd made two more free throws and Cameron Brink made a layup, but the Huskies had possession following the timeout.
Williams drew the foul and converted both free throws, and Prechtel missed a three-point attempt on the other end with five seconds left. Following a Stanford foul, Edwards missed the second free throw attempt, but it did not matter as UConn advanced to the national title game 63-58.
“We didn’t exactly play our A-game on the offensive end,” Auriemma said. “But the thing we needed to do, we had to do, we came up big.”
For the fourth consecutive tournament, the Huskies played the defending national champions in March Madness. With their victory against Stanford, the Huskies improve to 3-1 in those games.
“They’re the reigning national champions,” Auriemma commented. “It’s a hard game to win.”
Bueckers put on a show in her home state of Minnesota, leading the Huskies with 14 points on 7-13 shooting, four rebounds and five assists.
“I knew it was going to be competitive,” Bueckers stated. “The location doesn’t matter. We’re just trying to win.”
On a night where neither offense was pretty, it was the defense that stepped up for the Huskies. Even without Juhasz on the frontcourt, their lockdown presence forced Stanford to shoot 4-23 from downtown.
“We wanted to win the game,” Westbrook commented. “We knew what we needed to do to win, and our defense was the biggest emphasis.”
UConn grabbed more boards as the game progressed, outrebounding Stanford 46-37. Nelson-Ododa collected 10 of those boards while Muhl and Edwards had eight apiece.
Jones led Stanford with 20 points and 11 rebounds, good for her 12th double-double of the season. Brink was the only other Cardinal in double figures with 15 points.
The Huskies now enter their 12th national title game on the site where they won their first in 1995.
“By some miracle, we’re playing Sunday night,” Auriemma stated.
It’s a rematch of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament title game as the Huskies (30-5) square off with the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks. South Carolina won their previous contest 73-57 after limiting the Huskies to three points in the fourth quarter. The two were supposed to meet on Jan. 27 as well, but South Carolina made up a game against Tennessee that day instead.
South Carolina, led by Head Coach Dawn Staley, is 34-2 and took care of business against Louisville 72-59 in the first Final Four game on Friday. There were times where that game was close, but South Carolina pulled away late.
UConn is going for their 12th national title, South Carolina goes for their second and first since 2017. The Huskies enter with a 15-game winning streak, the Gamecocks enter on a five-game winning streak after coming up short in the SEC Tournament.
The Big East Conference Championship game was a clash of the previous two Big East Players of the Year in Bueckers and Maddy Siegrist. This national title matchup features the two most recent National Players of the Year.
Aliyah Boston scored 23 points and collected 18 boards on Friday for her 29th double-double of the season. She was not alone in this scoring venture as Brea Beal, Destanni Henderson, Zia Cooke and Victoria Saxton all put up double figures. The defense was on full display as the Gamecocks limited the Cardinals to 1-8 shooting from beyond the arc and forced four rejections.
Points and rebounds are going to be critical for both title contenders. Both teams enter scoring over 70 PPG while allowing their opposition to under 55. South Carolina averages 47.8 rebounds a game compared to UConn’s 39, but both teams allow under 32 boards a contest.
“This is as difficult of a championship game as I’ve been in. No question,” Auriemma stated to the press.
The national title game tips off at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday on ESPN. Students on campus who wish to attend the watch party at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion should order their tickets in advance. Tickets are free of charge and gates open at 7 p.m. EDT.