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Arizona is not just happy to be here.
The Wildcats' storybook added another special chapter with a dominating 69-59 win against 11-time national champion Connecticut in the Final Four on Friday night. Arizona, a No. 3 seed, will play No. 1 overall seed Stanford in an all-Pac-12 championship game on Sunday.
The Wildcats had not made an Elite Eight before this tournament run. They lost to Stanford in both meetings this season. It's the fourth straight semifinal loss for Connecticut, which had reached 13 consecutive Final Fours.
McDonald leads Arizona with 26 points
Arizona senior point guard Aari McDonald kept up her hot 3-point shooting right out of the gate to give the Wildcats a lead they held throughout the full 40 minutes. She finished with 26 points, hitting four of nine 3-pointers, and made big baskets when she needed to keep distance on UConn and star freshman Paige Bueckers.
"We just beat a great team," McDonald said. "UConn, that’s a powerhouse, you can’t get any better than that.”
It was her 92nd consecutive game scoring in double digits.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) April 3, 2021
McDonald added seven rebounds and had big-game help from teammates this time around. Sam Thomas had 12 points, shot 2-for-4 from 3-point range and made 6-of-8 free throws. Reese scored 11 and put down 5-of-7 free throws. She had three steals.
Trinity Baptiste scored seven with six rebounds and Bendu Yeaney had eight points with four assists and four rebounds.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 3, 2021
Arizona was left out of the NCAA's hype video ahead of the Final Four, but the three No. 1 seeds were all included. Head coach Adia Barnes called attention to it and McDonald said after the game it was part of their motivation.
Bueckers, UConn struggled from the start
The Huskies didn't show much urgency until minutes remained in their season. They trailed by as many as 14 points, their largest deficit of the tournament, as Arizona's defense suffocated their pass-happy offense. They missed open layups and weren't as crisp as any other game of the tournament.
"I've said all along this year ... we have a very immature group," head coach Geno Auriemma said "When we're high and we're on top of the world, we think everything's great. When things don't go our way, there's a pouting about us, there's a feeling sorry for ourselves."
The team does not have a senior with three juniors and seven freshmen, including leader Bueckers. She had only five points at the half and finished with 18 on an inefficient 5-for-13 shooting clip. She made 2-of-3 3-pointers with six rebounds and four assists, but couldn't rise as she had in previous tournament games.
Bueckers brought it within five on an open 3-pointer with 1:28 on the clock. UConn kept fouling and Arizona hit its shots to keep far enough away while the Huskies missed a handful of theirs that would have kept it close.
She scored 108 points over the five games of the tournament, a record for a UConn freshman that surpasses Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore. It's third-most in NCAA tournament history for a freshman.
Junior guard Williams kept the Huskies in striking distance as the offense stalled. She was 7-for-17 for 20 points, five rebounds, two steals and one assist. With about four minutes to play and UConn beginning to show signs of life she was called for a fifth foul despite not touching the shooter and sat out the final push.
"I think we came out with the wrong mentality," Williams said. "We thought it was going to be easy, I guess. We got flustered."
Evina Westbrook scored 10 on 4-for-9 shooting. In the post, freshman Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa couldn't get much going. Nelson-Ododa went without a basket and Edwards scored eight with seven rebounds.
Wildcats defense shuts down UConn
Arizona's defense was at its best from first tip, forcing more turnovers (nine) than made field goals allowed (8) and keeping the team to a season-low 22 points for a half.
The Huskies couldn't get good looks and were 35.7% from the floor. They missed open layups early that could have kept it close as McDonald heated up — again. Bueckers and Williams combined to make 13 of the team's 20 field goals and it wasn't enough.
The Wildcats contested 15 of UConn's 25 field goal attempts in the first half. Only WIlliams had more than one basket for the Huskies in the first half. She made five of 10 attempts for a team-leading 12 points. Bueckers scored five points on 1-for-4 shooting and dished out only one assist.
Arizona was everywhere with heads-up plays that kept balls alive and in their hands. There were a few tips as the ball went out of bounds to put it back with the Wildcats. Midway through the second, Arizona tightly defended an inside move by Edwards and tipped the missed shot back out. It bounced around and ended up in the hands of McDonald, who pulled up for a 3-pointer that pushed the lead back to six.
Even with McDonald taking a quick break after collecting two fouls, Sam Thomas drilled a deep 3-pointer to keep the momentum going.
The calm buckets kept coming at big moments for Arizona. After Bueckers and Williams brought UConn within five, 34-29, out of the half, Bendu Yeaney made a quick layup, assisted Trinity Baptiste on a 3-pointer and hit her own to put it back to 11.
Later in the third, McDonald grabbed a defensive rebound and Helena Pueyo slid under the defender's arms in the middle of the paint to slide in a basket. It put UConn into its largest deficit of the tournament, 48-34, and forced Geno Auriemma to call a timeout.
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