UConn women’s basketball’s season came to a bitter end in the Final Four as the Arizona Wildcats delivered a stunning upset, 69-59.
It was a convincing defeat, one in which the Huskies never led and didn’t get closer than five points over the final 31 minutes. It’s also UConn’s first double-digit NCAA Tournament loss since 2007 when LSU blew the Huskies out 73-50 in the Elite Eight.
“Embarrassed, disappointed in ourselves for not playing UConn basketball,” Evina Westbrook said postgame. “Embarrassed for our alumni and our fans having to watch us play like that.”
UConn didn’t play well in any facet of the game — offense, defense, on the boards and everything in between. Still, there were certain factors that played a major part in the Huskies’ latest Final Four heartbreaker.
They overlooked Arizona
Coming off an intense, emotional win over Baylor in the Elite Eight, UConn saw the 3-seed next to Arizona and just assumed this game would be nothing more than a formality before it advanced to the national championship.
“I think we came out with the wrong mentality,” Christyn Williams admitted. “I thought we thought it was going to be easy, I guess, and we got flustered.”
“I think personally, we just didn’t come out with the same fire that we had against Baylor,” Westbrook said. “At this point of the season, we have to come out like we’re playing the best in the nation every night and that’s not how we came out.”
Geno Auriemma admitted postgame that he couldn’t say what went on in his players’ minds, but he did feel the team’s youth and inexperience — or “immaturity” as he put it — showed through on Friday night. He also took some of the blame himself.
“If that is indeed what the mindset was — because, believe me, the scouting report on Arizona and the game plan on Arizona was way more thorough and way more involved than than the Baylor one was, to be honest with you,” he said. “So if that’s the case, then it’s bad coaching by us and it’s a sign of immaturity on our team.”
While Arizona’s defense caused problems for UConn all night, the Huskies also just missed easy opportunities near the basket. UConn went 7-22 on layups — though it made its last three in the final two minutes to pad that number.
“We just weren’t able to finish layups, easy baskets that we that we normally finish,” Westbrook said. “They were playing defense, for sure, tough defense but there were shots that we should’ve made.”
In UConn’s 29 prior games, it made 75.5 percent of shots at the rim, according to CBB Analytics. If the Huskies made that same percentage against Arizona, they would’ve gone 16-22 — an 18-point difference in a 10-point game.
Though the missed layups came from everyone — all five starters and Nika Mühl accounted for at least one — Olivia Nelson-Ododa had a particularly rough day. The junior went 0-7 from the floor on four layups and three jumpers and finished with just one point. She only played 20 minutes, in part due to foul trouble, but only saw three minutes in the fourth quarter. Auriemma benched her for the final 3:22.
Even though UConn failed to take Arizona seriously, never found a flow on offense and couldn’t contain Aari McDonald, it still could’ve found a way to win if it made more layups.
Overall offensive struggles
Arizona deserves plenty of credit for the way they defended UConn. Prior to the game, Auriemma called the Wildcats one of best defenses the Huskies had faced all season, alongside Baylor. That showed on Friday night.
UConn never got into any sort of rhythm or flow on offense. They struggled early and started 0-5 from the field (two of which were layups) and never recovered. At the end of the first quarter, they had just 10 points on 3-14 shooting and by the midway point, they’d only managed 22 points — the fewest in any half this season.
“That first half, it was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done,” Auriemma said. “I thought the intensity level that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end, we just didn’t respond as I hoped we would.”
In the end, UConn scored just 59 points on 35.7 shooting, both of which were season-lows.
“They had great ball pressure. They picked up full court all game. They trapped the ball screens,” Williams said. “That’s something that we haven’t really seen throughout the season so we struggled with it. We couldn’t really get into a rhythm offensively.”
At times, Williams single-handedly kept the Huskies in the game. In the second quarter, she scored 10 of the team’s 12 points and finished with a team-high 20 points. She was aided by Paige Bueckers, who still managed 18 points and four assists despite constant pressure and attention from Arizona’s defense.
Those two combined for 28 points and went 12-30 from the field. UConn’s other six players totaled just 21 points on 2-26 shooting.
“Paige is another example that you’re only as good as your teammates. It’s the bottom line. You’re only as good as the team around you,” Auriemma said.
McDonald runs wild
Auriemma recapped UConn’s defensive performance against McDonald succinctly.
“She just dominated the entire game start to finish,” he admitted. “We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her.”
McDonald finished with 26 points, made 4-9 from three and went to the line 11 times, hitting eight free throws. The Huskies couldn’t contain her in transition and her quickness proved to be too much for any of their guards to handle.
Even worse, McDonald came through in clutch situations. Pretty much every time the Huskies started to get close, the fifth-year senior hit a big shot.
In the first quarter, UConn closed to the gap to four with a minute left only for McDonald to score and put Arizona up six after one. In the second quarter, the Huskies pulled within six and McDonald responded by draining a 3-pointer. With 4:18 left in the fourth quarter, UConn got within seven before McDonald hit a jumper to push the lead back to nine. With 1:43 remaining, the Huskies cut the deficit to six on basket from Nika Mühl but McDonald erased the basket with a pair of free throws.
Whenever it looked like the momentum might have finally started to go in UConn’s direction, McDonald quickly put an end to it. The Huskies let her run wild all game long and she made them pay.