Many of the pregame storylines for UConn women’s basketball’s Final Four matchup with Arizona highlighted the disparity of the two programs’ experience competing for a nation championship. The Huskies were competing in their 21st Final Four, while the Wildcats made the final weekend for the first time in program history.
Perhaps instead the focus should have been on the experience on the court for each of the two teams. Arizona’s starting lineup boasted three seniors and two juniors. UConn started two freshmen with a third coming off the bench for significant minutes.
“When you get to this level, you need to have a couple mature players that are capable of doing that because the other team is really good, too,” head coach Geno Auriemma said after the loss. “They’re going to take you out of a lot of things you want to do. You’re going to have to have players who are that good, who rise above it.”
The Wildcats certainly had that Friday night with Aari McDonald putting the team on her back and willing them to a 69-59 upset win over UConn.
The Huskies’ trio of young talent in Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Mühl had been a bright spot all season long and helped carry this team to the Final Four, but that same youth proved to be their Achilles’ heel in the national semifinal.
“You could see their inexperience show,” Auriemma said. “I thought this was not one of Aaliyah’s better games but she got better as the game went on. Nika hasn’t played in a while. 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.”
It wasn’t just the inexperience of UConn’s freshmen that hurt in the loss. Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa were the only Huskies who had played beyond the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament and even they only did it once as freshmen in very different roles.
That was evident on the court as the Huskies’ leaders lacked the locked-in intensity required to win games in April. Williams, who stepped up big as one of the Huskies’ only real offensive threats in the game before fouling out on a controversial call, acknowledged as much after the game.
“I think we came out with the wrong mentality. We thought it was going to be easy, I guess,” Williams said. “We got flustered.”
While maybe a bit shocking to hear out loud, it’s not all that surprising. UConn was coming off of two matchups with Iowa and Baylor that garnered plenty of hype, including a battle with the Bears that was — on paper — a tougher matchup.
The Huskies entered their Final Four contest as the heavy favorite — as they should’ve been. But with such a young and inexperienced team, the focus and the fight required to compete for a national championship wasn’t on display Friday night.
“We have a very immature group, not just young. We have a young group, but a very immature group,” Auriemma said. “When we’re high and when we’re on top of the world, we think everything’s great. When things don’t go our way, there’s a poutiness about us, there’s a feeling sorry for ourselves about us. You don’t win championships when you’re like that unless you get lucky.”
The latter was the case for UConn on Friday night when things didn’t go its way from the opening tip. The team’s body language resembled what it looked like heading into the third quarter down by 10 points to Baylor just four days prior. This time, they never snapped out of it.
Luck wasn’t on the Huskies’ side either, as they struggled to get even the easy looks at the basket to fall.
“We need to grow up if we expect to be back here in the future,” Auriemma said.
Luckily for UConn, that growth should be inevitable. With seven freshman coming back and the entire roster expected to return (for now), the Huskies will have vastly more experience next time they’re on the court. Though that experience doesn’t always equate to maturity, the track record of UConn’s coaching staff would suggest that can be expected to improve too. Auriemma himself seemed confident about it.
“I believe that what we learned this year through all the ups and downs is going to really benefit us for the next couple years, for sure,” he said. “I remember saying that in 2008. We played and we lost to Stanford in the semifinal. It was Maya Moore’s freshman year. I said, ‘We’ll be back. We went back and we were undefeated the next two seasons. I don’t think that’s going to happen but we’ll be back here sooner rather than later.”