With 7:35 left in the fourth quarter against Stanford, Olivia Nelson-Ododa stepped up to the line with the chance to give UConn a commanding eight-point lead.
The first free throw took a nearly direct route to the basket — a line drive that somehow went through the cylinder. The second hit the front of the rim and took a friendly bounce that rolled up and over into the net.
“The two free throws, one was like a bullet, and the other one hit the bottom of the rim and somehow rolled up and went in,” Geno Auriemma said postgame. “I don’t want to say ‘Hand of God’ but there was definite intervention there for those two to go in.”
While neither were pretty, they got the job done — a perfect representation of the Huskies’ 63-58 victory over Stanford in the Final Four. Nothing about UConn’s performance was pleasant to the eye but they made the plays they needed to in order to move on. In the NCAA Tournament, that’s all that matters.
“The things we needed to do when we had to do them, we came up big,” Auriemma said. “We made a couple big plays, and by some unknown miracle, we’re playing Sunday night.”
For the Huskies, everything started on the defensive end. They held Stanford without a point for the opening 2:56 and limited it to just one basket in the first 6:37. While the Cardinal dominated down low and out-scored the Huskies in the paint 34-16, they didn’t make the a 3-pointer until there were less than two minutes to halftime and went just 4-of-23 from beyond the arc on the night.
“I thought we did a really good job of contesting all their open threes,” Paige Bueckers said. “We tried to make sure we had a hand in every single one of their shots because we know all of them can shoot, 1 through 5. So we tried to make it hard for them and made sure every shot they took was contested.”
UConn stagnated Stanford’s offense and turned it one-dimensional. While the Cardinal typically thrived on balanced scoring, Haley Jones and Cameron Brink combined for 35 of the team’s 58 points while Lexie Hull shot just 2-of-14 en route to a four-point night. When the Huskies went up eight in the fourth quarter on Nelson-Ododa’s free throws, the Cardinal didn’t have the firepower to overcome the deficit in such a short timeframe.
“I think we really struggled running our offense,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “We didn’t really run anything really well.”
But for a while, that didn’t really matter. UConn’s offense wasn’t exactly a model of efficiency either, so points were difficult to come by for either side. The two teams traded baskets for long stretches of the game and nobody held more than a two-possession lead through the first three quarters.
But when the final period began, the Huskies made their move. Nelson-Ododa scored an old-fashioned three-point play to extend the gap to five and Christyn Williams answered a Haley Jones jumper with a 3-pointer that gave UConn a six-point lead — tied for its largest lead of the night to that point — with 8:30 left to go.
From there, the Huskies won it on the free throw line. Despite shooting making just 68.8% of its foul shots coming in (which ranked in the bottom half of the nation) UConn made 16-of-20 from the stripe, including 15-of-17 in the fourth quarter.
All but nine of the Huskies’ points in the final 10 minutes came courtesy of free throws and it wasn’t all one player, either. Aaliyah Edwards, Azzi Fudd and Evina Westbrook each took four foul shots in the fourth, Nelson-Ododa took three and Williams took two.
“We’re the worst free throw shooting team in the tournament probably and now we’re knocking them all down at the end,” Auriemma said. “You can’t explain that. I can’t explain it.”
UConn needed the strong effort from the line to prevent an epic collapse late, too. The Huskies led by seven with 3:36 to go when Hannah Jump scored to narrow the gap to five. On the inbounds, Edwards was called for a violation that gave Stanford the ball back.
“Who steps in bounds to inbound the ball? When does that happen this year? Never. Not one time,” Auriemma bemoaned. “But it has to happen in the national semifinal.”
Later, the Cardinal got back within four with 34 seconds left on a 3-pointer. Still, all UConn needed to do was avoid a turnover and make its free throws and it’d be moving onto the championship.
But Westbrook couldn’t connect with Williams on a pass inside and the ball went out of bounds with 28 seconds left, giving Stanford possession. Jones went down and hit a tough jumper that suddenly cut the Huskies’ lead to two with 23 ticks to go.
UConn never panicked, though. Fudd hit two more free throws to put the Huskies up by four and even after the Cardinal pulled back within two on a layup with 18 seconds left, Williams stepped up and made two more from the line to push it back to a four-point game. The Huskies pulled themselves to the brink but then pulled themselves back.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot first, and then we do first aid, and then we come back and try to win the game,” Auriemma said.
On Friday night, the method worked. UConn didn’t bring its A-game and it needed plenty of help from Stanford but in the end, the Huskies won and they’re moving on to the championship game on Sunday. That’s all that matters.
“Sometimes you don’t have to have the best team to win this game, either,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes you just have to play the best that night, and you have to make some big plays in big moments and you do just enough with what you have.”