UConn defies expectations; back in the title game

MINNEAPOLIS — It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Not in November when they slid through South Florida to be crushed by South Carolina in Battle 4 Atlantis. It wasn’t seven weeks ago when Villanova snapped its 169-game conference winning streak. It’s not even two weeks into the second round against UCF when they seemed destined to watch the proceedings from their couches in Connecticut.

They should have been knocked out multiple times already in a tournament that featured parity early, but powers behind.

So, of course, the Connecticut Huskies are one of two teams left after a largely unremarkable 63-58 semifinal win over defending champion Stanford at Target Center on Friday night. They will return on Sunday for a clash between the old dynasty and the newly emerging as South Carolina beat Louisville in the Final Four earlier in the evening. It was a slog of a highly anticipated cross-country game in which UConn did just enough — mostly rebounding and hitting free throws — to advance.

“Sometimes you don’t need to have the best team to win that game either,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Sometimes you just have to play your best that night, and you have to make big plays in big moments, and you just do enough with what you have.

“Like you’re playing golf, but you don’t have your ‘A’ swing. But [you] just scrape it and put it in the hole as best you can, then go to the 19th hole and have a drink.

Auriemma can retire with a celebratory drink at least temporarily. Give him what his former Husky champions Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi had and remember when it was easier.

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

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

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

When announced No. 1 rookie Paige Bueckers signed on, there was talk of another four out of four. Arizona shut the door on that in the 2021 Final Four to mark UConn’s fourth straight semifinal loss.

Until 2022, it was with another announced No. 1 in Azzi Fudd. But the team started the season disheveled and Auriemma was unhappy with the defensive effort. In the Holiday Tournament game against the Gamecocks, they could only collect three points in the fourth quarter. They seemed to rely heavily on Bueckers to dig them up and be the beacon.

Then injuries hit and Bueckers couldn’t be the leading scorer since her two-month sit on the bench. Her father expressed fear of rushing her, and Auriemma was not optimistic either.

Sophomore point guard Nika Muhl called the stretch “hell” before the Big East tournament. And she didn’t hesitate to note that they are still “not complete”. Aubrey Griffin underwent back surgery in January and Dorka Juhász broke her wrist in the Elite Eight. She underwent surgery earlier in the week and is on the bench with the team.

“[It’s] just a lot of trust in each other,” Muhl said. “Just a lot of faith in our coaching staff [and] what they say. Lots of focus and focus on what we need to do each day to get here, and we stuck together, like always. I don’t think there was ever any doubt in ourselves.

There were doubts among fans who had watched this team, even with Bueckers returning the final two games of the regular season. A Final Four seemed unlikely. It wasn’t the dominant force in years past – which belonged to South Carolina and perhaps to some extent Stanford – and they made it into the No. 2 seeds, even if that allowed them to have home-field advantage in Bridgeport.

“So many years we’ve been here, we’ve been a No. 1 seed. So many years, we’ve been No. 1 No. 1,” Auriemma said. “We had the best team, everyone knew that, and it was, ‘Let’s just go do our thing, and I don’t think anyone can beat us if we play our A game.’

“And this year, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think coming in, ‘I think we’re the best team there.’ I don’t think we can win even if we play our best game. We need help – we need Stanford not to play their best game. We need them to miss shots that they normally make. Yes, it was completely different.

The Cardinal didn’t play his best game and struggled in attack. The team was 4 of 23 from 3 points and closed late, but not fast enough. It’s also not like UConn played their best. But he’s played just well enough to be back where he expects to be, even if he looks different.

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

We all should have known that when the game was canceled in January, we would see a second round in April anyway. It was as inevitable as UConn in the championship game, bad season scenario be damned.