Saturday, March 25

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 long.

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 across the country.

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 nonetheless 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 year’s NCAA tournament to beat a No. 1 seed.

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Bueckers’s scoring eruption in the first overtime continued into the second. The bonanza from the free throw line did, too. The magnitude of the UConn lead that emerged morphed and morphed, ascending at one point to 5 points, which seemed towering.

It did not last, not after a ferocious assault by NC State to keep the game within reach. But UConn had, barely, all that it needed to escape again—and to make the Final Four again.

Just last week, though, questions were swirling inside and outside the UConn 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, UConn’s coach since 1985, 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.

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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.

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UConn stamped Mercer in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The second-round game against Central Florida, played last Monday night in Storrs, 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.

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