UConn women’s basketball had seen this story play out before: one defensive possession remaining to decide the fate of the season.
In the 2017 Final Four, Mississippi State hit a buzzer-beater to snap the Huskies’ 111-game win streak. One year later, Notre Dame made a nearly identical shot to send UConn home in the national semifinal once again.
This time, Baylor had the ball at mid-court with 17 seconds left in a one-possession game with a trip to the Final Four on the line. It felt like history was bound to repeat for the Huskies, in a game where they trailed for a lot of the second half.
With UConn clinging to a 68-67 lead, Christyn Williams missed a pair of free throws that would’ve extended the advantage. Any basket by the Bears on that final possession would have brought the Huskies’ season to an end.
Baylor gave the ball to Dijonai Carrington, who had scored 22 points and carried the team for much of the game.
“We knew the ball was probably going to go into [Carrington’s] hands, as it was all game,” Evina Westbrook said.
Initially, Williams guarded Carrington but a screen forced Olivia Nelson-Ododa to switch on her. The junior came out high to prevent a 3-point shot and Carrington turned the corner and drove down the left side of the paint. UConn was ready for it.
“We obviously didn’t want any threes but we knew they were going to drive,” Williams said.
Aaliyah Edwards stepped out at the low block which forced Carrington to pull up and take a contested shot with four seconds left.
“The backside help was ready,” Williams said. “Liv and Aaliyah were back there and they had their hands up.”
Carrington’s shot fell way short of the rim and into the hands of Williams, who was fouled with less than a second to go. Williams missed the first free throw but made the second, which gave Baylor one final chance, though it proved fruitless as Paige Bueckers intercepted it near mid-court to send UConn to the Final Four with a 69-67 victory.
Though it may have felt like the entire game hinged on that final possession, Geno Auriemma looked at the wider picture and pointed to everything that led up to that one moment.
“We made enough plays. In a game like this — just like in those games that we lost on buzzer-beaters — a lot happens along the way, way before that play that accounts for winning or losing the game,” he said.
The ending didn’t come without controversy. Both Carrington and Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey felt a foul should’ve been called, which would’ve put Carrington on the line for two shots with a chance to go ahead.
“I personally don’t see it as a controversial call,” Carrington said. “I’ve already seen the replay. One girl fouled me in my face and one girl fouled me on my arm. At that point, you can’t do anything else.”
“I’ve got still shots and video from two angles,” Mulkey said. “One kid hits her in the face one kid hits her on the elbow.”
Auriemma responded by pointing out the foul discrepancy in the first half despite Baylor’s physical play.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. But I’d also like to look at all the fouls in the first half where they shot 11 free throws and we shot two,” he said. “I’m not going to go back and check all those. I’m not going to go back and check on the last one. So a call’s a call and you’ve got to live with it and the officials are going to make the call they think they need to make.”
Despite a contest that resembled something closer to a football game at times, the officials let plenty of contact go throughout the first 39:43 of action. They didn’t suddenly change the way they called the game in the final 17 seconds.
“It was physical,” Williams said. “There were a lot of no calls.”
“A lot of no calls,” Westbrook quickly added.
Whether right or wrong, the officials didn’t call a foul, and UConn survived. After being on the wrong end of two heartbreaking finishes just a few years earlier, the Huskies got a stop when they needed one and because of that, they’re heading to their 13th straight Final Four.
“It was just a great battle by two great teams and it went down to the last possession,” Auriemma said.