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For UConn, a harder than usual path still leads to the Final Four

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — There was, after all these years, reason to doubt Connecticut’s women’s basketball team for most of the season.

There were the crippling injuries and losses to unranked teams, the near collapse last week at the NCAA Tournament and the giddy feeling that a program with 11 national titles had somehow been reduced to the status of ‘outsider.

But in front of a partisan crowd on nominally neutral ground in Bridgeport on Monday night, UConn calmed it all down: The second-seeded Huskies beat North Carolina State, 91-87, in double overtime to overthrow the lead. No. 1 series in their region and advance to their 14th consecutive Final Four.

The win extended one of America’s greatest sports streaks, a run that has already encompassed six national championships and a succession of players including Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart and now Paige Bueckers, whose hardwood exploits have turbocharged their game and helped it resonate in community gyms. to the cavernous arenas of the country.

This season, however, has shown UConn the risks of a bigger and better world of women’s basketball, a world where parity and exuberant drama are more often on display. And when the national semifinals are played in Minneapolis on Friday — UConn meets Stanford, a No. 1 seed and defending champion — the Huskies will, of course, be a contender, but by no means an undisputed favorite for the title.

The Huskies, after all, are coming off their worst regular season since 2004-05. They nevertheless won their ninth straight league title and were the Big East Conference regular season champions. They will arrive in Minneapolis with a 14-game win. Series after conquering NC State, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament champion, and becoming the first team in this NCAA tournament to beat a No. 1 seed.

They did it with a ferocity, tenacity and composition that had so often been out of reach for one reason or another in recent months, resulting in a game that Geno Auriemma, Connecticut’s coach since 1985, has later called “one of the best”. games I’ve been in since I’ve been at UConn – regular season, playoffs, it doesn’t really matter.”

It was certainly a showcase for Bueckers, who scored 27 points, her best performance since Nov. 14, weeks before the knee injury that would sideline her for months and jeopardize her team’s ambitions. Christyn Williams, a senior guard who scored 7 points in the first four minutes of the game, finished the night with 21 points, followed by Azzi Fudd, a freshman guard who had 19 points.

UConn needed nearly every one of those scores to quell one comeback attempt after another by NC State, which rallied from a 6-point halftime deficit and threatened to end another night of misery. for Huskies.

UConn was familiar with such threats. Just last week, questions swirled inside and outside the program about whether the Huskies would make it past the second round, when they successfully held off Central Florida and escape a two-day game streak that sent No. 2-seeded Iowa, whose roster includes Division I leading scorer Caitlin Clark, and 4th-seeded Arizona, runner-up last season after beating UConn in the Final Four, to exits.

In many ways, the fact that the Huskies made it to Bridgeport, let alone its regional final, was a testament to their depth and talent. For Auriemma, that was a fundamental notion.

“We’re a lot in this game because we have some really good players coming to UConn and they understand that if you come to Connecticut the expectations are incredibly high, the bar is set very, very high,” Auriemma said Sunday. . He added: “I’d like to say you have a choice, but I don’t think you have a choice if you come and play there. You better get into this game.”

Easier said than done.

UConn’s starting lineup has been cyclical this season, with two-thirds of the roster missing at least two games due to injury or illness. The Huskies have used 11 different setups this season, and their most long streak with constant training was six games.

Bueckers, a sophomore goaltender who won National Player of the Year honors last season, was out for nearly three months and required surgery to repair a knee injury in December. missed 11 games with a foot injury. Aubrey Griffin, a junior who was a reliable reserve in her first two seasons but eventually had back surgery, didn’t play at all. And so on.

The first loss of the season came in November, a punch in the Bahamas by national tournament seed South Carolina. A trip to Atlanta a few weeks later went awry when the Huskies lost by 13 points to an unranked Georgia Tech, who went on to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. A game against Louisville, one of the best teams in the sport and the No. 1 seed, turned into a loss. Coronavirus concerns at UConn led to cancellation of Big East clashes against Georgetown and Villanova A road trip to also unranked Oregon resulted in another 13-point loss, and in February, a loss to Villanova put ending UConn’s 169-game winning streak against conference opponents in the regular season and league tournaments.

The Huskies’ fortunes began to turn after that loss. Sharper defense began to hold opponents at bay, and offensive production against the Huskies plummeted. Villanova, for example, managed just 40 points against UConn in the conference tournament championship game on March 7. less than a month after scoring 72 goals against the Huskies.

UConn sent Mercer to the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The second-round game against Central Florida, played last Monday night in Storrs, Conn. goals on the field and raising doubts about their duration in the tournament.

“Normally we ride here having beaten everyone by 40 and we think we’re invincible,” Auriemma said Friday, a day before UConn’s Round of 16 game against Indiana. “Well, we certainly don’t think that now.”

The Huskies then beat the third-seeded Hoosiers 75-58, setting up Monday’s game. The Wolfpack, who were looking for their first Final Four appearance since 1998, had prevailed over fifth-seeded Notre Dame with belated heroisms.

For a while on Monday night, they seemed to keep that momentum going by scoring first, but they didn’t regain the lead until the first minute of the fourth quarter when Jada Boyd hit a layup.

A Fudd jumper pushed the Huskies forward again. Then Boyd went to the basket for another layup. A 3-pointer from Diamond Johnson gave NC State a 4-point lead, its biggest advantage of the night to that point, at about eight minutes. player.

Auriemma called time out, summoning his team around him for a meeting where he waved his hands with the animation of a coach who thinks he’s seen almost everything in basketball. On the other end of the field, NC State fans were screaming “Wolfpack! Wolfpack!” (Then the Macarena started.)

NC State center Elissa Cunane tied the game with a layup with less than a minute left and forced overtime.

UConn was brimming with confidence. At some point during the night, Williams said, a simple thought crossed her mind: “We have Paige Bueckers, and they don’t.”

However, neither team was able to monopolize the lead for long. After the Huskies and Wolfpack added 16 points apiece in the first overtime – Bueckers scored 10 – they set up for five more minutes of play.

The Huskies again turned to Bueckers, their sophomore star, and senior prop, Williams, who had restarted the offensive machine in the first quarter. The Huskies built a lead that reached 5 points, a deficit discouraging for the Wolfpack tonight.

At the last minute, however, UConn’s advantage had fallen to 2. Williams, who recently explained how UConn had spent this season mastering the art of grind-it-out games after years of bluster in March , made a free throw Soon, she added a layup.

NC State scored again, with about 10 seconds on the clock.

But UConn had everything it needed to escape one last time.

For good measure, Williams sank another layup – a spare before another Final Four.

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