MINNEAPOLIS — So much appeared the same Friday night as it did 27 years ago: Connecticut reaching the title game of the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament with a victory over Stanford at the Target Center.
That victory in 1995 gave the Huskies and Coach Geno Auriemma an opportunity to play for their first championship. On Sunday night against South Carolina, UConn can win a 12th national title to cap a winding, frustrating, injury-ridden regular season that has led to the Huskies reclaiming what has become their customary position as a postseason powerhouse.
Auriemma said this particular victory, in which Paige Bueckers and her talented teammates lasted just long enough to get past the reigning champion Stanford, 63-58, was “100 percent” different from that long ago defeat of the Cardinal.
“So many years, we had the best team going in and everybody knew it,” Auriemma said. “This year I didn’t think any of that.”
He believed that the team needed help, for Stanford not to play its best. “By some unknown miracle, we’re playing Sunday night,” he said.
The loss ended a 24-game winning streak for the Cardinal, which had been the longest active streak in Division I, and put the Huskies back in the championship game for the first time since 2016.
Bueckers, the sensational sophomore guard who grew up near Minneapolis but missed 19 games this season with a knee injury, led the Huskies with 14 points, even as she spent some time on the bench in the fourth quarter after taking a hit to the legs. After the game, she said she was “OK.”
“I knew it was going to be a very competitive, sort of sluggish game,” Bueckers added. “Both teams are trying to win a national championship. It’s a Final Four game and everybody is going to lay it on the line and that’s just basketball.”
A UConn defense that strained Stanford from the start held the Cardinal to one of their lowest-scoring games of the season, despite a late run that repeatedly turned the marathon into a one-possession affair.
Neither team shot particularly well. The Cardinal took more 3-point shots than the Huskies did and made fewer of them. Stanford’s scoring was led by Haley Jones, who had 20 points and finished with a double-double thanks to her 11 rebounds.
“There were some self-inflicted wounds in what we were doing out there, and it was disappointing,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
The first half was the low-scoring slog most fans had expected of the game played earlier in the evening between South Carolina, the tournament’s top overall seed, and Louisville. The physical tone between UConn and Stanford meant players spent more time pleading with officials for calls and trying to outmuscle each other than taking shots — Stanford’s Lexie Hull even briefly came out of the game with a bloody nose after taking a hard foul.
Neither team was even able to hit double digits until the final minute of the first quarter, when Bueckers was able to find an open look to drag the Huskies to 10 points. She was by far Connecticut’s best shooter early, to the delight of her hometown crowd.
Stanford began to gather a bit more offensive force in the second quarter. The splashiest offense in that period, though, came from UConn’s bench. Evina Westbrook, the redshirt senior guard who transferred from Tennessee when players still had to sit out a year, entered the game and hit three much-needed shots from behind the arc.
At halftime, the Huskies led by 1. The score promised an unusual outcome for one team: UConn arrived in Minneapolis with a 25-1 record this season in games it led after two quarters. Stanford was 6-1 after trailing at the half.
One of the game’s most intense battles came between the teams’ best post players: Stanford’s Cameron Brink and Connecticut’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Brink pulled ahead in the first half with just one foul and 8 points to Nelson-Ododa’s two fouls and zero points.
But Brink picked up her third and fourth personal fouls early in the game’s final quarter, which sent her to the bench and allowed Nelson-Ododa to pad UConn’s lead at the free throw line.
“She was extremely physical when we went to our post player,” VanDerveer said of Nelson-Ododa. “We really tried every timeout, every dead ball, to say ‘Get the ball inside.’ But it’s easier said than done.”
Stanford’s offense sputtered through much of the second half, at least by its standards. The Cardinal struggled to move the ball around the court, and their usually glimmering 3-point shooting languished.
“We left a lot out there unsaid,” Jones said. “It’s hard to swallow that pill.”
But UConn was hardly proving explosive itself, and the Huskies only held a one-possession lead heading into the final quarter. The “Let’s go Huskies!” chants began to build as the team strung together points, and when Bueckers was able get a steal and drive in for a layup that matched UConn’s largest lead with less than six minutes to play, it felt like Stanford’s window was closing amid a long scoring drought.
But the Cardinal repeatedly narrowed the margin to a single possession in the final minute, finally seeming to find the offensive cohesion that eluded them for most of the game. Late free throws by Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd helped UConn to rebuild and preserve its leads.
By then, South Carolina’s players had been watching, fresh from their 72-59 rout of Louisville, with popcorn in hand to size up their opponents for Sunday night.
Natalie Weiner reported from Minneapolis.
Source: NY Times