Bridgeport, Connecticut – There have been, after all these years, reasons to be suspicious of the Connecticut women’s basketball team almost all season.
There were the injuries and heavy losses to the unranked teams, the impending collapse last week during the NCAA Championship and the intense feeling that the 11 National title program had been somewhat reduced to underdog status.
But before a partisan crowd at a nominally neutral stadium in Bridgeport Monday night, the Yukon calmed it all down: 2nd seed Husky defeated North Carolina, 91-87, in double overtime to drop the top seed in their area and advance to their 14th straight final.
The victory extended to one of America’s greatest sports streaks, a streak that already included six National Championships and a string of players, including Maya Moore, Brianna Stewart and now Paige Bakers, whose hardwoods tapped their game and helped make an echo in community gyms to cavernous arenas. nationally.
This season, though, UConn has shown the dangers of a bigger and better world for women’s basketball, a world where equal drama and great oftentimes come to life. And when the national semi-finals take place in Minneapolis on Friday — UConn will meet Stanford, the number one seed and reigning champion — Husky will of course be a contender, but by no means a favorite for the title.
After all, Huskys are coming off their worst regular season since 2004-05. However, they held their ninth consecutive league title and were the regular season champions of the Big East Conference. They’ll arrive in Minneapolis with a 14-game winning streak after defeating North Carolina State, the regular-season champion and championship title in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and become the first team in this NCAA tournament to beat the #1 seed.
They’ve done it with ferocity, perseverance and a formation that has often been out of reach for one reason or another in the past few months. The result was a game that Geno Auriemma, a Connecticut coach since 1985, said afterwards “one of the best games I’ve been a part of since I was at UConn — regular season, post-season, it doesn’t really matter.”
It was certainly a show for the Packers, who scored 27 points, their best showing since November 14, weeks before a knee injury that would sideline her for months and threaten her team’s ambitions. Kristen Williams, the great goalkeeper who scored 7 points in the first four minutes of the match, finished the night with 21 points, followed by Azzi Fad, the new goalkeeper who got 19 points.
UConn needed nearly every one of those results to put down one comeback attempt after another by NC State, which rose from a 6-point deficit in the first half and threatened to complete another night of misery for the Huskies.
UConn was aware of such threats. Just last week, questions both in and out of the program were raised about whether the Husky would progress beyond the second round, when they managed to overpower Central Florida and escape a two-day series of games that sent the second seed to Iowa, which includes her roster. The Division I top scorer, Caitlin Clark, and Arizona’s No. 4 runner-up, last season’s runner-up after beating UConn in the Final Four, feature to the exits.
By many measures, the arrival of the Husky dogs ever to Bridgeport, let alone their regional final, was a testament to their depth and talent. For Orima, it was a basic idea.
“We’re in this game a lot because we have really good players coming to UConn and they understand that if you come to Connecticut, the expectations are incredibly high, and the standards are very, very high,” Auriemma said on Sunday. He added, “I would say you have a choice, but I don’t think you have a choice if you come and play there. You better get yourself into this game.”
Easier said than done.
UConn’s starting lineup has been in the league this season, with two-thirds of the team losing at least two games due to injuries or illnesses. Husky have used 11 different setups this season, and their longest streak with a fixed lineup has been six games.
The Bakers, a sophomore guard named National Player of the Year last season, missed nearly three months and required surgery to repair a knee injury in December. Fudd, a freshman who was a star for UConn behind the 3-point arc, missed 11 games with a foot injury. Aubrey Griffin, a young woman who was a reliable retainer in her first two seasons but eventually underwent back surgery, didn’t play at all. and so on and so on.
The first loss of the season came in November, as the Bahamas defeated South Carolina, the top seed in the national championship. A trip to Atlanta went derailed a few weeks later when the Husky lost by 13 points to the unranked Georgia Tech, who lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The match against Louisville, one of the sport’s top and top ranked teams, turned out to be a loss. UConn’s coronavirus issues led to the cancellation of Big East matches against Georgetown and Villanova. A road trip to Oregon, also without a rating, resulted in another 13-point defeat, and in February a loss to Villanova ended UConn’s 169-game winning streak against conference opponents in both the regular season and the league.
Huskies’ fortunes began to shift after that loss. A sharper defense began to drive away opponents, and offensive production against huskies declined. Villanova, for example, scored just 40 points against Ocon in the Conference Championship game on March 7, less than a month after he scored 72 points against Husky.
UConn sent Mercer packages into the first round of the NCAA Championship. The second-round game against Central Florida, played last Monday night in Storrs, Connecticut, was even more bruised, as the Huskys struggled to score in the paint, scored 14 field-low goals in the season and raised doubts about whether they would continue to qualify. The competition.
“We usually move in here after we beat everyone by 40, and we think we’re invincible,” Orima said Friday, a day before Yukon meet in the round of 16 against Indiana. “Well, we certainly don’t think so now.”
The Husky proceeded to sweep the third-seeded Hoosiers, 75-58, to begin Monday’s competition. The Wolfpack, which had been chasing their first Final Four appearance since 1998, outnumbered fifth seed Notre Dame with trailing championships.
For a moment on Monday evening, they seemed to maintain that momentum, scoring first. However, they did not seize the lead again until the opening minute of the fourth quarter, when Jada Boyd made a throw-in.
A hopped-up husky fud was pushed forward once more. Then Boyd went to the basket in order to throw the ball again. The Diamond Johnson NC State 3-pointer gave a 4-point lead, its biggest advantage of the night up to that point, with about eight minutes to play.
Auriemma called timeout, and summoned his team around him to a meeting where he waved his hands at an animation of the coach thinking he’s seen it all in basketball. At the other end of the field, NC State fans were chanting “Wolfpack! Wolf Pack!” (Then the macarena began.)
North Carolina center Elisa Konany tied the game with a corner kick with less than a minute left and forced into overtime.
UConn was filled with confidence. “We’ve got Paige Bakers, and they don’t,” Williams said at one point in the night, a simple thought.
However, neither team was able to monopolize the lead for long. After the Huskies and Wolfpack each added 16 points in the first overtime — the Bueckers scored 10 — they prepared for another five minutes of play.
The Huskys turned once again to the Bueckers, their sophomore star, and to their biggest fan, Williams, who had restarted the offensive machinery in the first quarter. The Husky built a lead that rose to 5 points, a massive deficit for the Wolfpack on this night.
With the arrival of the last minute, UConn’s advantage was down to 2. Williams, who recently spoke about how UConn has spent the season perfecting the art of games of the grind after years of showing off in March, made a free throw. Soon, she added throwing the ball.
NC State scored again, with about 10 seconds remaining on the clock.
But UConn had everything it needed to escape one last time.
For good measure, Williams struck another throw – a backup shot before another Final Four.
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