Connecticut is on to its 14th consecutive Final Four after a double-overtime thriller. The No. 2-seeded Huskies downed No. 1 seed NC State, 91-87, in what was essentially a home game in the Bridgeport region on Monday.
It was the first double-overtime game in the Elite Eight or later in women's tournament history. Paige Bueckers came up clutch in the first overtime period and hit the opening 3-pointer 20 seconds into the second OT to put the Huskies up 80-77. UConn led by as many as five, the largest lead of either overtime period, but it still came down to the final few possessions.
Up two, UConn (29-5) inbounded the ball with 10 seconds left, though it was close to a five-second call. Senior Christyn Williams laid in an easy bucket to clinch the win. She scored UConn's final five points to close out with 21 and five rebounds.
"It just signifies what we’ve been through all year," Bueckers said on the ESPN broadcast. "A whole bunch of adversity, highs and lows, ups and downs. We stayed composed and we stayed together. I just love my team."
Bueckers got hot in a clutch first overtime period to score a game-high 27 points on efficient 10-of-15 shooting. She was 6-of-7 from the free-throw line — critical seeing as the team was 12-of-20 — with six rebounds. The reigning national player of the year for a few more days, Bueckers looked her best self after a knee surgery that kept her out of 19 games.
"Thank God Paige came back," UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said on the broadcast. "She just gives everybody so much confidence. And then everybody just kind of played — everybody took turns making plays.
"It was just an amazing basketball game. It was a great showcase for our sport."
Bueckers noted on the broadcast it was "win or go home" two days ago, but even with a win she's going home to Minnesota. Two more wins nets her first national championship. The Huskies will face No. 1 seed and Spokane winner Stanford when the Final Four tips off in Minneapolis on Friday.
UConn leads early; NC State charges back
The Wolfpack trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, a not-unusual situation for the slow-starting squad, while missing easy buckets. Senior center Elissa Cunane was 2-of-6 for five points, but came alive on an and-1 at 8:29 of the third that brought them within one, 34-33. NC State had a chance to tie it at 40 with three minutes left in the quarter, but missed easy shots came to haunt them again following a block on the other end.
The top seed finally took the lead 35 seconds into the fourth quarter on a Jada Boyd layup assisted by Raina Perez. Diamond Johnson hit a 3-pointer on another assist by Perez that finished off a 12-2 run to put NC State up four. It was a back-and-forth duel for the final eight minutes.
It came down to which team could make the pivotal stop. In a way, it was NC State but also UConn that stopped itself. After a missed basket by Diamond Johnson, UConn committed a shot clock violation out of the timeout. Cunane tied the game at 1:03 and NC State had the final say after two missed free throws. But Johnson was triple-teamed and could only get it to Kai Crutchfield, who was forced to take a late and deep 3-point attempt in a bad look.
NC State forces 2OT with corner 3
Bueckers scored 10 of UConn's 16 points in the first overtime. Aaliyah Edwards gave UConn the largest lead of the frame with a lay-in off a pass from Azzi Fudd that made it 73-70 with 49 seconds left.
Kayla Jones answered for NC State with contact on the basket, but there was no foul call. Fudd hit two free throws to push the lead back to three and Crutchfield was fouled on a 3-point attempt, but made only two free throws to miss out on tying the game again. UConn kept it in the hands of Fudd and Bueckers to kill clock and put good free-throw shooters at the line for any foul.
Bueckers made both of her free throws again, but with six seconds still on the clock NC State coach Wes Moore was able to set up the play he wanted. And he did. Jakia Brown-Turner drilled the corner 3-pointer off a cross-court pass from Perez with a second left to force the second overtime.
Brown-Turner led NC State with 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Perez had 10 assists, but was 1-of-8 overall with a 3-pointer as her only points. Cunane scored 18 points shooting 8-of-13 with nine rebounds. The starters combined for seven blocks, but the 14 turnovers to UConn's eight were problematic in the first half.
More injuries for UConn
Connecticut's season of injuries continued into the tournament. The Huskies came into the Elite Eight having used 11 different starting lineups since eight different players missed at least two games. Bueckers returned a month ago from leg surgery she underwent in December.
Dorka Juhász was fouled on an offensive rebound and fell under the basket screaming in pain midway through the fourth quarter. The first replay was unclear but another angle gruesomely showed Juhász injure her left wrist when she fell on it.
The graduate student, who transferred from Ohio State, immediately left for the locker room with an ice pack on her wrist and did not return to the game. She was seen on the bench with her wrist heavily wrapped in the third quarter.
"If we see one of our sisters go down, we're gonna do it for her," Bueckers said on the broadcast. "We all love each other. We're all so close."
The two-time first-team All-Big Ten player averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game for UConn, mostly off the bench. She had come in when Nelson-Ododa drew her second foul to begin the second quarter.
The Huskies' depth became dicey in the second half when bigs Edwards and Nelson-Ododa drew their third fouls at the 8:29 and 5:34 marks, respectively. Edwards fouled out in the second overtime.