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Opponent Preview: No. 1 UConn women’s basketball vs. No. 3 Arizona

The Huskies will face a tough defensive test when they tangle with Arizona in the Final Four.

NCAA Women’s Basketball: Elite Eight-Indiana at Arizona Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

UConn women’s basketball will face Arizona in the Final Four on Friday night with the Huskies vying for their 12th trip to a national championship game. The Wildcats are 20-5 on the season with three of those losses coming to top-tier Pac-12 opponents in Stanford and UCLA.

Arizona ranks 21st overall in Her Hoop Stats’ ratings but will be one of the toughest defensive teams UConn has faced this season. The Wildcats rank sixth in Her Hoop Stats’ defensive ratings and have allowed an average of just 55 points per game this season.

“You know the best defensive team we played this year is Baylor, bar none. Arizona is a different kind of defensive team. They do it a little bit differently,” head coach Geno Auriemma said ahead of the matchup. “But I think the two best defenses that we’ve seen — we’ve played one of them already and that was Monday night — we’re getting ready to play another one on Friday.”

Arizona’s defensive presence is certainly different than Baylor’s. The Wildcats don’t have the overwhelming size and length that the Huskies were up against on Monday. Instead, they deploy a full-court press often and use their quickness to excel on the defensive end of the floor.

The Huskies are well-suited to go up against Arizona’s full-court press with three ball handlers that are nearly always on the court in Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams, and Evina Westbrook. It may take a team effort to get the ball up the court but with smart passes and their backcourt trio, UConn shouldn’t have too much trouble breaking the press. If Nika Muhl is available, they’ll even have a fourth option to help move the rock.

While Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards might not have much of a role in helping break the Arizona press, they will likely be where UConn’s offense thrives in this matchup. The frontcourt duo will have the definitive size advantage over the Wildcats with Sam Thomas, Trinity Baptiste, and Cate Reese standing at 6-feet, 6-feet, and 6-foot-2, respectively. The Huskies should be able to pound the ball inside like they did in some of their earlier matchups.

On the other end of the floor, the majority of Arizona’s offense runs through their senior guard, Aari McDonald, whose game we broke down in more detail here. Reese is the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer and the only other player on their roster averaging in double figures on the season.

She averages 11 points per game but has struggled to score against teams with a quality post player this season, like in Arizona’s regional games against Texas A&M and Indiana. In fact, the only player to hit double figures in either of those games other than McDonald (who hit the 30-point mark in both) was Baptiste with 12 points against the Hoosiers.

UConn’s keys to the game

Contain Aari McDonald

If the Huskies can hold McDonald to around 20 points, they will likely cruise through this game. That’s much easier said than done however and UConn has a tough task in front of them with Arizona’s leading guard.

Take care of the ball

Arizona turns its opponents over nearly 18 times per game and its full-court press plays a big role in that. UConn has to make smart decisions with the basketball and keep its composure against the Wildcats’ defense. At times during the Baylor game, the Huskies made some out-of-control passes, which Arizona will look to convert into easy transition buckets.

Crash the glass

Arizona has struggled on the offensive glass all season long, averaging under 11 offensive boards per game. UConn can make this game easier for themselves by eliminating any second chance opportunities for the Wildcats.

On the other end, Arizona is better at defensive rebounding, collecting around 72 percent of their opponents’ missed shots. However, that number has been under 60 percent in matchups with stronger post presences, like Stanford, UCLA, Texas A&M, and Indiana. Nelson-Ododa and Edwards should look to capitalize inside with second-chance opportunities for UConn.

Predicted results

Per Her Hoop Stats, the Huskies have a 90.7 percent chance of getting the win over Arizona, with a predicted margin of victory of 15.3 points. Whether UConn exceeds that margin significantly or ends up in a close game will depend largely on how well the Huskies can contain McDonald.