Minneapolis, MN–UConn knew if they had a chance to beat the defending national champions, they will have to play excellent defense and rebound well. Both feats were accomplished.
Stanford’s (32-4) season came to an end Friday night, as the Cardinal fell to Connecticut (30-5), 63-58, in the national semifinal at the Target Center.
The loss ended a 24-game winning streak for the Cardinal, which had been the longest active streak in Division I, and put the Huskies back in the championship game for the first time since 2016.
UConn was vying to win its 12th national title to cap off a frustrating, injury-ridden regular season that has led to the Huskies shuffling lineups like they change the Nikes.
Both teams played hard nose defense from start to finish. The fourth quarter was the first to see either team score 20 or more points in the 10-minute span. The Huskies had 24 and Stanford 21 in that final frame.
“So many years, we had the best team going in and everybody knew it,” Auriemma said. “This year I didn’t think any of that.”
The Cardinals didn’t think Paige Bueckers would be able to put her cape back on and turn into “Page Buckets” after being out for a minute due to ACL injury.
Haley Jones led the Cardinal with 20 points and 11 boards, finishing a standout season with her 12th double-double and third in a row in the NCAA Tournament. Cameron Brink poured in 15 points and seven rebounds, while Lacie Hull grabbed a career-high nine rebounds.
The Huskies led for over 36 minutes in the game its lead was never safe. The largest lead of the night was the Huskies’ eight-point lead half-way through the fourth quarter.
At halftime, the Huskies led by 1 (27-26). By the score, you knew the game was going to be tight. UConn arrived in Minneapolis with a 25-1 record this season in games it led after two quarters. The Cardinals was 6-1 after trailing at the half.
One of the game’s most intense battles came between the teams’ best post players: Stanford’s Cameron Brink and Connecticut’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Brink pulled ahead in the first half with just one foul and 8 points to Nelson-Ododa’s two fouls and zero points. But Nelson-Ododa stayed the course in the second half and kept Brink off the glass.
UConn needed a complete team effort to win its 12th Final Four matchup. Minnesota native Paige Bueckers led her squad with 14 points, followed by Evina Westbrook with 12 and Christyn Williams chipped in 10. Three other Huskies finished with eight or more points for the contest.
Front court play was a big question mark for the Huskies entering this game. After losing Dorka Juhasz to a wrist injury in the Elite Eight, UConn seemed to be outmatched going in against a very long and athletic Stanford team. Not only did Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa step up their game with a combined 18 rebounds, but the whole squad also pitched in with another 38 for a grand total of 46 — nine more than Stanford.
“I knew it was going to be a very competitive, sort of sluggish game,” Bueckers added. “Both teams are trying to win a national championship. It’s a Final Four game and everybody is going to lay it on the line and that’s just basketball.”
Stanford’s offense sputtered through much of the second half, at least by its standards. The Cardinal struggled to move the ball around the court, and they couldn’t get the three ball to fall.
UConn had to work to get to the finals. Leading by 52-44 with 1:26 left, Stanford made a furious rally thanks to a few costly UConn turnovers.
UConn only held a one-possession lead heading into the final frame. The “Let’s go Huskies!” chants began to get louder as the team put together some buckets, and when Bueckers stole the ball and raced down the court for a layup that matched UConn’s largest lead with less than six minutes to play, Stanford starting to feel the pressure.
Late free throws by Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd helped UConn to rebuild and sealed the win.
Stanford Ashten Prechtel, who had two long threes on the night, missed a tough contested 3-pointer from the wing with 5.4 seconds left and the Huskies held on for the win.
“There were some self-inflicted wounds in what we were doing out there, and it was disappointing,” said VanDerveer.
The Huskies have another tall task on Sunday when they take on Aliyah Boston and the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks.