For UConn, a Rougher Path Than Usual Still Leads to the Final Four

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — There were, after all these years, reasons to doubt the Connecticut women’s basketball team almost all season.

There were the injuries and the gutting losses to unranked teams, the near-collapse last week during the NCAA tournament and the head-spinning sense that a program with 11 national titles had somehow been diminished to underdog status.

But before a partisan crowd on a nominally neutral court in Bridgeport on Monday night, UConn quieted all of that: The second-seeded Huskies beat North Carolina State, 91-87, in double overtime to topple the No. 1 seed in their region and advance to their 14th consecutive Final Four.

The victory extended one of American sports’ greatest streaks, a run that has already encompassed six national championships and a succession of players, including Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart and now Paige Bueckers, whose hardwood exploits turbocharged their game and helped it resonate from community gymnasiums to cavernous arenas nationwide.

This season, though, showed UConn the risks of a bigger and better world of women’s basketball, one where parity and rollicking drama are peeking into view more often. And when the national semifinals are played in Minneapolis on Friday — UConn will meet Stanford, a No. 1 seed and the reigning champion — the Huskies will, of course, be a contender, but by no means an unquestioned title favorite.

The Huskies, after all, are coming out of their worst regular season since 2004-5. They nevertheless earned their ninth straight league tournament title and were the Big East Conference’s regular-season champions. They will arrive in Minneapolis with a 14-game winning streak after conquering NC State, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular-season and tournament champion, and becoming the first team in this NCAA tournament to beat a No. 1 seed.

They did it with a ferocity, tenacity and lineup that had so often been out of reach for one reason or another these last few months. The upshot was a game that Geno Auriemma, the Connecticut coach since 1985, afterward pronounced “one of the best games I’ve been a part of since I’ve been at UConn — regular season, postseason, it doesn’t really matter. ”

It was certainly a showcase for Bueckers, who scored 27 points, her best showing since Nov. 14, weeks before the knee injury that would sideline her for months and imperil her team’s ambitions. Christyn Williams, a senior guard who scored 7 points in the game’s first four minutes, finished the night with 21, followed by Azzi Fudd, a freshman guard who had 19 points.

UConn needed nearly every one of those scores to put down one comeback attempt after another by NC State, which rose up from a 6-point halftime deficit and threatened to complete another night of misery for the Huskies.

UConn was familiar with such threats. Just last week, questions swirled inside and outside the program over whether the Huskies would advance beyond the second round, when they managed to hold off Central Florida and escape a two-day stretch of games that sent No. 2-seeded Iowa, whose roster features Division I’s leading scorer, Caitlin Clark, and No. 4-seeded Arizona, last season’s runner-up after it beat UConn in the Final Four, to the exits.

By many measures, that the Huskies made it to Bridgeport at all, much less its regional final, was a testament to their depth and talent. To Auriemma, it was a fundamental notion.

“We’re in this game a lot because we have really good players that come to UConn and they understand that if you come to Connecticut, the expectations are incredibly high, the bar is set very, very high,” Auriemma said on Sunday. He added: “I’d like to say you have a choice, but I don’t think you have a choice if you come and play there. You’d better get yourself into this game.”

Easier said than done.

UConn’s starting lineup was cyclical this season, a consequence of two-thirds of the roster missing at least two games with injuries or illnesses. The Huskies have employed 11 different setups this season, and their longest streak with a consistent lineup was six games.

Bueckers, a sophomore guard who earned National Player of the Year honors last season, was absent for nearly three months and required surgery to repair a December knee injury. Fudd, a freshman who has been a star for UConn behind the 3-point arc, missed 11 games because of a foot injury. Aubrey Griffin, a junior who was a reliable reservist in her first two seasons but eventually had back surgery, did not play at all. And so on.

The season’s first loss came in November, a pummeling in the Bahamas by South Carolina, the national tournament’s top overall seed. A trip to Atlanta a few weeks later went awry when the Huskies lost by 13 points to an unranked Georgia Tech, which went on to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A game against Louisville, one of the sport’s best teams and a No. 1 seed, turned into a loss. Coronavirus issues at UConn led to the cancellations of Big East matchups against Georgetown and Villanova. A road trip to Oregon, also unranked, yielded another 13-point defeat, and in February, a loss to Villanova ended UConn’s 169-game winning streak against conference opponents in the regular season and league tournaments.

The Huskies’ fortunes started to turn after that loss. A sharper defense began to keep opponents at bay, and offensive production against the Huskies plunged. Villanova, for instance, managed just 40 points against UConn in the conference tournament championship game on March 7, less than a month after scoring 72 against the Huskies.

UConn feels Mercer packing in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The second-round game against Central Florida, played last Monday night in Storrs, Conn., was more bruising, with the Huskies struggling to score in the paint, making a season-low 14 field goals and stirring doubts about whether they would last in the tournament.

“Normally we’re rolling in here having beaten everybody by 40 and we think we’re invincible,” Auriemma said on Friday, a day before UConn’s round of 16 meeting against Indiana. “Well, we certainly don’t think that now.”

The Huskies proceeded to wallop the third-seeded Hoosiers, 75-58, setting up Monday’s contest. The Wolfpack, who were seeking their first Final Four appearance since 1998, had prevailed over fifth-seeded Notre Dame with late heroics.

For a moment on Monday night, they seemed to sustain that momentum, scoring first. They did not, however, seize the lead again until the fourth quarter’s opening minute, when Jada Boyd hits a layup.

A jumper by Fudd pushed the Huskies ahead again. Then Boyd went to the basket for another layup. A 3-pointer by Diamond Johnson gave NC State a 4-point lead, its largest advantage of the night to that point, with about eight minutes to play.

Auriemma called timeout, summoning his team around him for a meeting where he waved his hands with the animation of a coach who figures he has seen most everything in basketball. At the other end of the court, NC State fans were roaring “Wolfpack! Wolfpack!” (Then the Macarena started.)

Elissa Cunane, the NC State center, tied the game with a layup with less than a minute to go and forced overtime.

UConn brimmed with confidence. At one point in the night, Wiliams said, a simple thought crossed her mind: “We have Paige Bueckers, and they don’t.”

Neither team was able to monopolize the lead for long, though. After the Huskies and the Wolfpack added 16 points each in the first overtime — Bueckers scored 10 — they prepared for another five minutes of play.

The Huskies again turned to Bueckers, their sophomore star, and to the senior stalwart, Williams, who had kicked the offensive machinery into gear back in the first quarter. The Huskies built a lead that rose as high as 5 points, a daunting deficit for the Wolfpack on this night.

As the last minute arrived, though, the UConn advantage was down to 2. Williams, who had talked recently about how UConn had spent this season mastering the art of grind-it-out games after years of swaggering into March, made a free throw . Soon enough, she added a layup.

NC State scored again, with about 10 seconds left on the clock.

But UConn had all that it needed to escape one last time.

For good measure, Williams sank another layup — a spare shot ahead of another Final Four.

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