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UConn relying on seniors as it prepares for the “most challenging game of the year”

Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa need to continue leading the charge for the Huskies to reach their 14th straight Final Four.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

For UConn women’s basketball to accomplish its ultimate goal of winning a national championship, it needs to win three more games.

Geno Auriemma has been through plenty of NCAA Tournaments — 32, to be exact, not to mention 26 Elite Eights, 20 Final Fours and 11 national championships — and from that wealth of experience, he believes the regional final is the toughest game.

“I’ve always said it’s the most challenging game of the year, even more so than for the winner next weekend’s games (in the Final Four),” Auriemma said. “I think tomorrow’s game is way more challenging.”

There’s two reasons for that. First, the goal of almost every team in the nation — with the exception of UConn itself and a handful of other programs — is to reach the Final Four. Plenty of lower seeded teams have made Cinderella runs through regionals — look at 3-seed Arizona last season, or in 2016 when 2-seed Oregon State, 4-seed Washington and 7-seed Syracuse joined the Huskies in Indianapolis.

It’s very rare that those teams actually win the national championship. All but two national champions have been either 1-or-2-seeds and the other two were 3-seeds. For most programs, once the pain of the loss fades, they’re be happy to have simply reached the Final Four at all.

For UConn, reaching the Elite Eight has become a given. Since 1994, the Huskies have failed to make it that far just twice: 1999 and 2005. With how much talent they assemble year after year, anything less would require either a catastrophic failure or an all-time upset at this point.

UConn’s also made 13 straight Final Fours, but it’s far less of a guarantee. The Huskies have lost six Elite Eight games all-time — three times as many defeats as the round of 16 — and would’ve likely had another if the NCAA Tournament happened in 2020. Last season, UConn needed a 19-0 third quarter run to earn a two point victory over Baylor in the Elite Eight.

“I think your program can only get you so far and this (the Elite Eight) is probably the end of the road unless somebody steps up and plays spectacularly well,” Auriemma said on Sunday.

The Huskies aren’t short on options to step up. They feature a nine-player rotation — seven of whom have led the team in scoring in at least one game this season. But at this point in the year, Auriemma wants his veteran players to lead the charge — which is exactly what happened in UConn’s 75-58 victory over Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen.

Christyn Williams had 15 points to tie for the team lead and didn’t turn the ball over once while Olivia Nelson-Ododa recorded a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds. They performed exactly how seniors are expected to at this point in their careers.

“They really played tonight like they didn’t want the season to end,” Auriemma said postgame. “There comes a point when you’re a senior...where you have to put it on your own shoulders and go, ‘I have control over how this ends.’ They actually do. They have more control than I do. So you have to exercise that control.”

Those two have been central in UConn’s run to the Elite Eight. So far in the NCAA Tournament, Williams has averaged 13.3 points per game and 2.0 steals per game while Nelson-Ododa has added 9.0 rebounds 2.0 blocks per game — all of which are team-highs. When Williams shoulders the backcourt load and Nelson-Ododa controls the paint, it allows everyone else to excel in their respective roles.

Paige Bueckers doesn’t have to put the team on her back like she did for much of last season. Azzi Fudd can focus on getting open for 3-pointers. Nika Mühl can defend and hit the occasional shot from deep. Caroline Ducharme can find buckets wherever available. Evina Westbrook can fill in the gaps. Aaliyah Edwards can set the tone and be physical down low. Dorka Juhász can hit the glass and grab offensive rebounds.

If everyone can play their role to the best of their ability, UConn is a hard team to stop.

“Everybody has a role to play in everything,” Auriemma said. “That doesn’t mean they always love their role, enjoy their role. Everybody wants to be up here talking to you guys because they were the leading scorer or the leading this or the leading that, but that’s not how you win championships. Everybody has got to do a little bit.”

To get to the Final Four, UConn will need to go through the top seed in the Bridgeport regional in North Carolina State.

The matchup reminds Auriemma of 1991, when the Huskies beat NC State in the Sweet Sixteen en route to their first Final Four. Even though the Wolfpack have made it once before in 1998, that was before their entire roster was even born. The school might be the same, but this is essentially a new program looking to make its own history.

“First regional we ever played in, we beat NC State in the Sweet Sixteen and that was our first one ever and they had been there a bunch of times,” Auriemma said. “So who knows? History might repeat itself the other way.”

All that goes out the window when the ball is tipped on Monday night, though. The fact that UConn has made 13 straight Final Fours doesn’t guarantee it a 14th trip. On the other side, NC State’s lack of tournament success won’t factor in either. Experience matters, but history doesn’t.

“Sitting here right now, looking at tomorrow doesn’t make me feel any good (that the Huskies have made every Final Four since 2008). You still have to go out and win that game and whether this is your first time or whether it’s your however many time, this game is the same. It’s going to be played the same way,” Auriemma said. “Previous history I don’t think has anything to do with what happens tomorrow night.”