In 'down' season, UConn is right back in women's title game ... of course

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

Not in November when they slid by South Florida only to be crushed by South Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Not seven weeks ago when Villanova snapped their 169-game conference winning streak. Not even two weeks ago in the second round against UCF when they looked destined to watch the proceedings from their couches in Connecticut.

They should have been knocked out multiple times already in a tournament that showcased parity early, but powerhouses late.

So, of course, the Connecticut Huskies are one of the two teams left standing after a largely unremarkable 63-58 semifinal win against defending champion Stanford at Target Center on Friday night. They’ll return on Sunday for a matchup of old dynasty vs. emerging new as South Carolina trounced Louisville in the Final Four earlier in the evening. It was a slog of a highly anticipated cross-country matchup in which UConn did just enough — mainly rebound and hit free throws — to advance.

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

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

Auriemma can retire with a celebratory drink at least temporarily. Give him whatever his former Husky champions Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were having and reminisce about when it was easier.

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

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

When heralded No. 1 recruit Paige Bueckers committed, there was talk of another four-in-four. Arizona shut the door on that in the 2021 Final Four to mark UConn’s fourth consecutive semifinal loss.

In 2022 it was with another heralded 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, the Huskies could only muster three points in the fourth quarter. They appeared to rely largely on Bueckers to dig them out and be the guiding light.

Then injuries hit, and Bueckers couldn’t be the clutch scorer from her two-month seat on the bench. Her father voiced concern about rushing her back, and Auriemma wasn’t optimistic, either.

Sophomore point guard Nika Muhl called the stretch “hell” ahead of the Big East tournament. And she didn’t hesitate to note they’re still “not complete.” Aubrey Griffin underwent back surgery in January and Dorka Juhász fractured her wrist in the Elite Eight. She underwent surgery earlier in the week and is 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 staff [and] what they're saying. A lot of concentration and focus on what we have to do every day to get here, and we just stuck together, like every other time. I don't think there was ever a doubt in ourselves.”

There was doubt among fans who had watched this team, even with Bueckers back the last couple of games of the regular season. A Final Four seemed unlikely. It wasn’t the dominating force of years past — that belonged to South Carolina and maybe to an extent Stanford — and they scraped into a high No. 2 seed, though it did allow them home-court advantage in Bridgeport.

“So many years that we've come here, we've been a No. 1 seed. So many years we’ve been the No. 1 No. 1,” Auriemma said. “We had the best team going in, everybody knew it, and it was, ‘Let's just go do our thing, and I don't think anybody is going to be able to beat us if we play our A game.’

“And this year, I didn't think any of that. 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 A game. We need help — we need Stanford to not play their best game. We need them to miss shots they normally make. Yeah, this was completely different.”

Stanford did not play its best game and struggled on offense. The team was 4-of-23 from 3-point range and made it close late, but not quickly enough. It’s not like UConn played its best, either. But it played just well enough to be back where it expects to be, even if it looks different.

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

We all should have known when the matchup was canceled in January we’d see a round two in April anyway. It was as inevitable as UConn in the championship game, the storyline of a down season be damned.