UConn defies expectations; back in the title game

MEMORIAL POLICE – That’s not how it should be.

Not in November, when they slipped past South Florida only to be crushed by South Carolina in Battle 4 Atlantis. Not seven weeks ago, when Villanova snatched their winning streak of 169 games. Not even two weeks ago in the second round against UCF as they looked to see the case from their couches in Connecticut.

They should have been knocked out several times already in a tournament that showed parity early but powerhouse late.

So of course, the Connecticut Huskies are one of the two teams left behind after a largely imperceptible 63-58 semifinal victory against defending champion Stanford at Target Center on Friday night. They return on Sunday for a battle between old dynasty and new as South Carolina beat Louisville in the Final Four earlier in the evening. It was a blow of a long-awaited cross-country match, with UConn doing just enough – mostly rebounding and hitting penalty throws – to advance.

“Sometimes you also do not have to have the best team to win this match,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “Sometimes you just have to play the best that night and you have to make some big games in big moments and you do just enough with what you have.

“Like you play golf, but you do not have your ‘A’ turn. But [you] just scrape it around and get it in the hole as best you can, and then go to the 19th hole and have a drink. ”

Auriemma can retire with a festive drink at least temporarily. Give him whatever his former Husky masters Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi got and recalled when it was easier.

The UConn Huskies celebrate after defeating Stanford in the 2022 NCAA Women’s Final Four semifinal on April 1, 2022 at the Target Center in Minneapolis. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

UConn is in the midst of a slippage, at least to the standards it set with 11 championships since 1995, the year they first won here in Minnesota against Stanford. The Huskies’ last title was 2016, the final of four in a row, they dominated behind two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart.

When No. 1 recruit Paige Bueckers announced his commitment, it was another four-in-four. Arizona closed the door on it in the 2021 Final Four to mark UConn’s fourth semifinal loss in a row.

Until 2022, it was with yet another announced No. 1 in Azzi Fudd. But the team started the season shabby and Auriemma was unhappy with the defensive effort. In the holiday tournament match against the Gamecocks, they could only muster three points in the fourth quarter. They seemed to rely heavily on Bueckers to dig them out and be that guideline.

Then the injuries hit and Bueckers could not be the clutch scorer from her two-month-long seat on the bench. Her father expressed concern about rushing her back, and Auriemma was not optimistic either.

Sophomore point guard Nika Muhl called the stretch “hell” ahead of the Big East tournament. And she did not hesitate to notice that they are still “not complete.” Aubrey Griffin underwent back surgery in January, and Dorka Juhász broke her wrist in Elite Eight. She underwent surgery earlier in the week and is sitting on the bench with the squad.

“[It’s] just a lot of faith in each other, ”Muhl said. “Just a lot of faith in our coaching team [and] what they say. A lot of concentration and focus on what we need to do every day to get here, and we just stayed together, just like every other time. I never think we had any doubts. ”

There was doubt among fans who had seen this team, even with Bueckers back the last few games of the regular season. A Final Four seemed unlikely. It was not the dominant force of previous years – which belonged to South Carolina and perhaps to some extent Stanford – and they scraped into a high No. 2 seed, even though it gave them home ground advantage in Bridgeport.

“So many years that we have come here, we have been a seed No. 1. So many years we have been No. 1 No. 1,” said Auriemma. “We had the best team on the way in, everyone knew it and it was, ‘Let’s just go and do our thing, and I do not think anyone will be able to beat us if we play our A-game. . “

“And this year I did not think about it. I did not think I came in, ‘I think we are the best team there.’ I do not think we can win even if we play our A-game, we need help – we need Stanford not to play their best game, we need them to miss the shots they normally make. Yes, this was completely different. “

Cardinal did not play their best game and fought in the offensive. The team was 4-of-23 from 3-point range and made it close late but not fast enough. Nor is it the case that UConn played its best. But it played just right enough to be back where it expects to be, even if it looks different.

The Huskies will see if they can do better in round two against South Carolina, the second team to lose in the 2021 Final Four, with this more experienced group of players having to go up with Bueckers out.

We should all have known when the match was canceled in January that we would still see a round two in April. It was just as inevitable as UConn in the championship game, the story of a downturn being cursed.

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