2:51 remained in the third quarter when Geno Auriemma called a timeout. Though UConn only trailed by nine, the players looked like they had already lost when they came into the huddle.
“There was a look on their face like ‘We don’t know that we can do this,’” Auriemma said.
At that moment, it didn’t look like UConn could do it. Despite jumping out to a 16-4 lead in the first five minutes, the Huskies were outplayed and outscored 49-28 over the next 22 minutes. Down 53-44, UConn came off the court with a hint of disbelief in their eyes.
Anna Makurat refused to participate in the pity and set her teammates straight when they got to the bench.
“When it started to get away from us, even [Makurat] said, ‘You guys need to change the look on your face, man,’” Auriemma relayed.
As the season hung in the balance, the coach delivered a simple message to his team.
“‘Look, you only have two choices, guys,’” he told them. “‘You either do the things that we do every day or we go home. It’s not that complicated. It’s not complicated at all.’ I don’t think they wanted to go home. I think they’d rather keep playing basketball. So that’s what happened.”
The tide began to turn in UConn’s direction on Baylor’s next possession — though it was nothing the Huskies did. DiDi Richards shuffled her feet awkwardly and immediately went down grabbing at the back of her left leg. The reigning national defensive player of the year hobbled off the court with a pulled hamstring.
Though Richards tried to return at the start of the fourth quarter, she proved ineffective in two and a half minutes of play and went back to the bench.
“I knew it had to be a hamstring because that’s what she grabbed,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “It swung the whole momentum.”
Suddenly, UConn had life.
On the next possession, Olivia Nelson-Ododa got to the line and snapped UConn’s 2:44 scoring drought. After the teams traded baskets, Dijonai Carrington missed the layup that could’ve put Baylor back up 10 and the Huskies seized the opportunity.
Williams grabbed the rebound and drained a 3-pointer down the other end to bring UConn within five. Bueckers forced a steal on the ensuing possession and hit a three of her own which cut the deficit down to two entering the fourth quarter.
The break did little to slow UConn down. The Huskies forced a stop and got two free throws from Williams to tie the game. Then, Aubrey Griffin drew a charge and Aaliyah Edwards scored a second-chance basket to give UConn its first lead of the second half.
After Richards left the game, the Huskies rattled off a 21-2 run to flip the game on its head.
“Aubrey took a couple of charges, then we started to play better defensively and that fueled our offense, gave us a lot of confidence,” Auriemma said. “Paige making shots really ignited everyone else. That just got everybody feeling much better about themselves.”
Though Richards’ injury made it easier for UConn on the offensive end, it also locked down on defense — particularly on the boards. Baylor grabbed 11 offensive rebounds for 13 second-chance points in the first 21 minutes but got just four o-boards and four second-chance points over the final 19.
The Bears staggered from the Huskies’ counterpunch but they didn’t go out quietly. With just under seven minutes left, Baylor mounted a comeback bid and scored 12 of the next 16 points to get within one. The Bears had a chance to win it on the final possession only for UConn’s defense to hold strong and force a miss from Carrington to earn the win.
“They’re a great team and they came back like we knew they would,” Auriemma said. “We knew we were going to have to keep making one play after another all the way to the end.”
While Richards’ injury undoubtedly changed the complexion of the game on the court, UConn’s comeback wouldn’t have taken advantage of it without the change in attitude. If not for that timeout with 2:17 left in the third quarter — and Makurat’s verbal slap across the face — the Huskies’ season would’ve ended right there in the Elite Eight, regardless of whether Richards got hurt or not.
Instead, UConn jumped on the chance and turned the game around with a 19-0 run. That timeout saved the Huskies’ season and helped send them to the Final Four yet again.
“So winning this game, given how it played out getting down 10, that’s an amazing accomplishment by these young kids,” Auriemma said.