SAN ANTONIO — UConn went to the Final Four on Friday night as the heavy favorites, with the player of the year and a championship pedigree.
Arizona came in with an underdog coach and an underdog story, playing like it had nothing to lose.
The Wildcats will face Pac-12 rival Stanford in the championship game Sunday. It’s the first time the Pac-12 has had two groups face off in the championship game.
It was Arizona that seemed like the team who had been there earlier, while UConn appeared as if it simply couldn’t handle the strain or the spotlight. However, in fact, it was the Wildcats’ first win from the AP No. 1 group — in their Final Four appearance, no less.
Afterward, UConn guard Christyn Williams stated,”I believe we came out with the wrong mentality. I thought we thought it was going to be easy, I guess, and also we got flustered. They had good ball pressure. It was not like anything that we have seen before this season. We just could not get in the flow ”
Arizona coach Adia Barnes and her staff are probably surprised to hear that, thriving off the doubters and the non-believers through the NCAA tournament. Guard Aari McDonald, who took centre stage once more with a game-high 26 points,” said the Wildcats use it all as inspiration — particularly getting left from the NCAA’s own promotional movie for the women’s Final Four.
If one scene in the match embodied that feeling, it was Barnes being shown at a huddle late in the game, using a choice curse phrase to remind her players.
“The cuss term is essentially,’forget everyone,'” Barnes said after the game.”
“Keep gambling against my teammates and I, we are going to show you wrong. We are going to prove you wrong.”
Barnes, who played Arizona, has turned around a Wildcats program that doesn’t have the exact same history or heritage since UConn under coach Geno Auriemma, in his 21st Final Four. But they took it into the Huskies in the beginning, and they did that behind McDonald, that had been clutch not just with her scoring, but with her poise, confidence and leadership on the court.
It appeared clear from the beginning that Arizona needed to deliver a message.
“I have been an underdog all my life,” Barnes explained. “Too small to do this, too this to do that, too inexperienced to get this done. We establish it wrong each time. I really don’t care. It just pushes me and my group.”
UConn simply never responded, and the Huskies have now lost in four consecutive Final Four semifinals. Bueckers finished with a quiet 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting in the final game of her freshman season. But even as she fought, nobody about her stepped up and the Arizona defense created even the simple shots seem impossible.
For the game, UConn was just 6-of-31 on contested shots, based on ESPN Stats & Information research. Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa combined to take 1-of-11 on layups — such as 0-of-5 from Nelson-Ododa.
“I’ve said all along this season we have a very immature group, not only young,” Auriemma said. “When we are high and if we’re on top of the world, we believe what is great. When things don’t go our way, there’s a poutiness regarding us, there is a feeling sorry for ourselves that you don’t win championships when you’re like that unless you get lucky.
I really do believe these games do have to remain with you a little bit longer. I’d say, at least on my end, I’m going to be coaching in the Final Four months on April 2nd, whatever date is.”
He’ll have Bueckers back to help him get there. Going into the game, all eyes were on her after her outstanding performance not just during the season but in the NCAA championship — through which she scored 90 total points before Friday. Even after UConn went by double-digits, the Huskies are a team that could get hot at any moment.
However, the shots remained evasive, and Arizona continued using its relentless strain, playing with the assurance of a team that suggested not for a moment that was its first time playing at the Final Four.
Could this be the run everybody expected to determine from the generally fast-charging Huskies?
No, it wouldn’t. Now UConn, having lost in four consecutive Final Four semifinals, might need to wait another year to try to win its first national championship since 2016. While Arizona moves in an attempt to generate history of its own.
“It has not settled in yet,” Barnes said. “It is amazing. This was a really hard match. We didn’t have any strain. It is a much simpler position to be us than it’s UConn because I feel the program is really good, you’re likely to win, and that is hard. “For us, it’s a whole lot easier to play loose when there isn’t pressure. We got hot at the perfect time during the tournament. Everybody has done a tiny bit longer. That is all I could ask for. They’re playing their hearts out. They think, I believe. We don’t care if anybody thinks .”