No. 1 UConn 86, No. 2 Texas 65
It has been an amazing four years for UConn’s seniors. The numbers game has been played so often, it’s hardly necessary: they have lost five games in four years, just one in the last three seasons. They are in the midst of a 73-game winning streak.
This is my 20th season covering UConn. This is the last live game I’ll see this season, and I realized this morning that I will miss watching Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck play together more than I have missed any of the many great players before them. Whether or not they win their fourth straight National Championship, they are already in the conversation of “best of all time.” I have no answer to that question, but I can say that no UConn team has played more beautiful basketball than the teams led by these three. On a day they were seriously challenged by a well-prepared, tenacious Texas team, the UConn seniors rallied and adjusted to move on to their fourth Final Four.
On Monday night, Texas tested UConn in ways no team has done this year. And still lost by 21 points. That’s how good this UConn team is. But note this: Texas held the Huskies to two fast break points, the lowest (obviously) total in the last four years, and maybe, ever.
“They got back so well and they filled the lanes so well,” Jefferson said.
UConn played the whole game in half-court offense. And the Longhorns controlled the break without abandoning the boards: Texas out-rebounded UConn, 34-29.
Texas limited UConn to one point off a turnover, a remarkable ball-protection performance against a team that averages 12 steals per game. Texas even “limited” UConn to 32 points in the paint. (They scored 54 paint points in the Sweet Sixteen).
But this was UConn Texas was “controlling.” The Huskies compensated for the missing fast break by shooting 57.1 percent (12-21) from beyond the arc, sinking a three nearly every time Texas would make a surge. All five UConn starters hit at least one three, and the seniors kept the game under control.
”We’re the seniors, and we’ve got to make big plays in big moments,” Jefferson said. ”They were on a run, and we really needed to step up.”
As they have all year, Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck refused to let UConn lose.
Texas Coach Karen Ashton was rightfully proud of her team, but could only marvel, with all of women’s basketball, at UConn’ s versatility.
“A phenomenal performance I thought on their part – especially shooting the basketball. . . . . I felt that we tried to give them as many looks defensively as we could, but they have an answer for just about everything that you give them,” Aston said.
That’s this UConn team: for four years, they have been able to answer nearly every time.
Texas and UConn met last year in the Regional, and Huskies beat the Longhorns by 51 poinsts. This year’s squad is a much better one for Texas, however, and they did not allow UConn to run away from them early. The Texas defense was active, and even forced a rare UConn shot-clock violation. Three consecutive threes brought them within two halfway through the first period. They were down just five points at the end of the first quarter, 22-17. Another made three was released just after the buzzer sounded. Three-for-two. That’s been the only way to compete with UConn this season, and Texas shot the three well.
In fact, Texas shot everything well until a scoring drought of almost five minutes saw UConn take a commanding third quarter lead that they never relinquished. For much of the game, however, Texas worked their offense to perfection, finding open shots, and knocking them down, shooting 47 percent against the nation’s best defense in the first period, driving with aggression, drawing fouls, and defending well.
Briefly UConn appeared rushed, and a bit rattled, but Stewart brought things back under control. One possession after she launched an airball, the senior drained a net-only three to extend the lead to eight halfway through the second period.
With Tuck and Gabby Williams in foul trouble, Napheesa Collier entered the game midway through the second quarter and was anything but the tentative kid she so often played this season. She drove the lane for a layup, then the baseline for an and-one. On defense, the 6-foot Collier blocked a shot (uncredited), held 6-5 Kelsey Lang scoreless, and appeared from nowhere to grab rebounds. In 7 minutes of play, the freshman scored 7 points, grabbed 4 boards, and helped UConn take a 46-31 lead into the locker room.
Texas had come a bit down to earth after the hot first quarter, shooting just 30 percent in the second period without a made three pointer. Connecticut, however, shot 61 percent, including 7-12 (.583) from three-point range.
Texas came out of the locker room back in rhythm, hitting two threes in the first few minutes of the third period, matching UConn basket for basket. They continued to get open, and a third three-pointer shaved a single point off the lead halfway through the quarter. Texas began to press towards the end of the third period, without much success, but they did a marvelous job of keeping UConn out of the paint. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, the Huskies continued to hit from the outside. As the quarter closed, they were 11-20 from beyond the arc, and extended their lead to 19 points, 66-47.
Texas hung as tough as any UConn opponent this year, effectively forcing the Huskies to shoot jump-shots, while continuing to get open looks themselves. The Longhorns controlled the pace of the fourth quarter, and the press shortened UConn’s possessions, making them rush frequently. The Huskies were nonetheless able to stretch the lead to 19 by the end of the third period.
Although UConn eventually won by 21 points, Texas never slowed, forcing a pace and intensity that kept the outcome from feeling secure until the last few minutes. UConn’s seniors stayed in the game until 1:38 remained, leaving to a huge ovation.
“It never felt like a twenty-point win,” Stewart said. “We had to work hard all game.”
The Longhorns were led by sophomore Ariel Atkins and freshman Lashann Higgs with 19 points each. The team shot 41 percent, but could not match UConn’s 56 percent and the Huskies’ stunning 57 percent from beyond the arc. Senior center Imani Boyette’s stat line was an unimpressive 4 points and 6 rebounds, but her skillset was essential to keeping Texas in the game. To control the 6-7 senior UConn decided to double-team her on every touch, leaving Atkins (3-4) and Brooke McCarty (4-10) open to shoot all those threes. Boyette’s presence in the lane kept UConn from dribble-drives most of the night, and altered enough shots to control the paint points.
UConn moves on to its ninth straight Final Four. Texas goes home disappointed but heads held high. They simply ran into a juggernaut that was not to be denied. Four Huskies scored in double figures, led by Tuck’s 22 and Stewart’s 21 points and 13 rebounds. Samuelson had 9 points and six boards, and Collier, in just 12 minutes of play, scored 9, and grabbed 4 rebounds. Jefferson finished with 11 points and 9 assists.
UConn was, of course, excited to be moving on, but moreso to be done with this game.
“This game is the most difficult game I think to win,” Coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards.
“I say that every time we’re in this game, and it’s true, and it showed tonight. You’re playing against a really good team that really tested us at both ends of the floor and it forced our best players to play great. That’s exactly what you need at this time in the tournament. You don’t want to be going to the Final Four thinking that games are easy. And in spite of the score today, this was by no means easy.”
But that most difficult game is behind them, and the Huskies go to Indianapolis as the only team with Final Four experience, and maybe, the only team that can have fun there. “We’re really excited to go to the Final Four,” Stewart said. “I think that any time you go, it’s a lot of fun, there’s a lot going on, there’s — coach is talking about this is our last trip with this team. Last time to be with this team. And I think we’re just going to enjoy it. Especially as seniors. Last time it’s going to be like this.”
I know I will miss this group as they try for something – four National Championships – that has never been done. By any basketball team, men or women. I hope they have fun.
The All-Regional Team:
Ariel Atkins, Texas
Lashann Higgs, Texas
Moriah Jefferson, UConn
Morgan Tuck, Uconn
Breanna Stewart, Uconn, Most Outstanding Player (4th time)