With less than 30 seconds left in UConn’s 69-67 win over Baylor in the Elite Eight matchup on Monday night, the top-seeded Huskies led the No. 2 Bears by a point.
Baylor, looking to keep the game alive, fouled Christyn Williams and sent her to the free-throw line.
The Huskies’ junior missed both shots. The Bears, with 17 seconds left, had a chance to undo the work UConn did to pull itself back into the game after trailing by 10 in the third quarter, putting an end to the Huskies’ streak of 12 straight Final Fours.
Baylor’s DiJonai Carrington, who scored a team-high 22 points, drove to the rim with seconds left. But Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa formed a wall in front of her as she rose for a jumper, and her shot fell short over the outstretched arms of UConn’s two starting forwards. The Huskies recovered the ball, Williams was fouled, and hit one of two free throws.
Baylor’s Caitlin Bickle tossed a long inbound pass with 0.8 seconds left to halfcourt, but UConn’s Paige Bueckers (game-high 28 points) intercepted the pass and time ran out.
UConn will play in its 13th straight Final Four. The Huskies will play No. 3 Arizona, which beat No. 4 Indiana, in the Final Four on Friday.
“That was harder than winning some of the national championships we’ve won,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Here’s how the Huskies did it:
UConn trailed by 10 points with under two minutes to go in the third quarter. It hadn’t scored from the field since a Bueckers layup two minutes into the quarter. The Huskies, who recorded 30 assists against Iowa in the Sweet 16, hadn’t had one since the first quarter.
“I said look, we either do the things we do every day, or we go home,” Auriemma said. “It’s not complicated …
Then Nelson-Ododa found Bueckers for a layup, and the Huskies began a run.
UConn scored the final eight points of the quarter — five from Bueckers and three from Williams (21 points) — to cut the Baylor lead to just two points heading into the fourth.
The run continued into the fourth, as Bueckers and Williams scored nine of the team’s first 11 points in the quarter, part of a 19-0 run that started late in the third. Baylor’s Nalyssa Smith hit a shot to halt the UConn run, but the damage had been done. In a span of five in-game minutes, the Huskies turned a 10-point deficit into a nine-point lead.
The run came while Baylor’s DiDi Richards — the Big 12′s Defensive Player of the Year — checked out of the game late in the third quarter with a left leg injury. With her sidelined, the Bears were left without their top defender and top play-maker for the stretch run.
“I thought DiDi Richards getting hurt opened up some things for us on offense, and we were able to take advantage of that,” Auriemma said.
Baylor cut UConn’s lead down to one point with just 19 seconds left as Carrington hit four free throws.
Carrington’s final shot, defended by Edwards and Nelson-Ododa, was not called a foul, though Carrington, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and many on social media believed it was.
“One girl fouled me in the face and one girl fouled me on the arm,” Carrington said.
Auriemma said he has not seen the replay, though he did bring up the fact that UConn was called for seven fouls in the first half to Baylor’s three.
“I’d also like to look at all the fouls in the first half when they shot 11 free throws and we shot two,” Auriemma said. “A call is a call and you’ve got to live with it.”
Keys to the game
As simple as it sounds, UConn won because it got hot when it needed to most.
The Huskies can thank their guards for that.
From the two-minute mark of the third quarter to the midpoint of the fourth, Bueckers (10 points) and Williams (nine) combined for 19 of UConn’s 22 points as part of a 22-4 Huskies’ run to retake the lead after trailing by double-digits.
“Paige making shots really ignited everyone else,” Auriemma said.
Said Bueckers: “We got kind of stagnant and watched everybody do their own thing. Once we got the ball movement better and started pushing in transition and getting easier buckets against their really tough defense at half court, I think that really opened up the game for us.”
When Baylor cut UConn’s lead to just three points with just over a minute left, there was Williams. Edwards blocked a shot on the defensive end and the ball wound up in Williams’ hands. She sank a layup with 1:03 to go to give UConn a five-point lead.
Williams scored 14 of her 21 points in the second half.
“Everyone does huge things for this team,” Bueckers said. “We have multiple people that can get a bucket at anytime.”
Player of the game
Bueckers. The star freshman stepped up when her team needed her the most, scoring 10 points in a 22-4 UConn run that stretched between the third and fourth quarters.
Her 28 points were a game-high, and did so on 10-for-22 shooting.
“Like all great players, she can sense the moment,” Auriemma said. “She has the ability to fill that moment. Not everybody does.”
She was named Most Outstanding Player of the River Walk Region after averaging 22.5 points through the first four games of the NCAA Tournament.
Stats of the game
Baylor turned the ball over just twice in the first half, but 10 times in the second half. The Huskies took advantage of the Bears’ mistakes, and scored 12 points off those turnovers in the final 20 minutes.
UConn scored 17 points off turnovers on the game.
The Huskies also limited Baylor’s second chances in the second half. After giving up 10 offensive rebounds and 11 second-chance points in the first half, UConn limited those figures in the second to six offensive rebounds and six second-chance points in the final two quarters.
UConn’s Evina Westbrook finished in double-figures for the second straight game with 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting (3-for-5) from 3-point territory. Nelson-Ododa scored just three points, but had a team-high eight rebounds and five blocks.
UConn opened the game on a 16-4 run, but Baylor responded to cut the deficit to two heading into the second. Baylor’s leading scorer Nalyssa Smith finished with 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting.
By Shawn McFarland | HARTFORD COURANT