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UConn survives Baylor to advance to 13th Final Four

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 29: Aaliyah Edwards and NaLyssa Smith hustle after a loose ball. Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.
SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 29: Aaliyah Edwards and NaLyssa Smith hustle after a loose ball. Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.

UConn was able to stave off Baylor, 69-67, in the River Walk regional final Monday and hang on to punch a ticket to their 13th Final Four.

Christyn Williams scored 9 of her 21 points in the fourth quarter and Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa combined to block DiJonai Carrington’s last-second attempt to tie the game, in what has become a controversial sequence.

Baylor’s defense disrupted the Husky offense so completely that they had just nine assists in the game, after having 30 in their victory over Iowa two days earlier. Forced into one-on-one basketball, Williams and freshman phenom Paige Bueckers answered the call with 49 combined points, including 5-12 on threes.

As hard as the Bears made things, though, UConn shot 43.3 percent on the evening 10 ten points above the norm for a Baylor opponent.

On the other side of the ball, the Husky defense held the Bears to 39.4 percent shooting. NaLyssa Smith scored just 14 points on 6-13 shooting (following an 11-11 night against Michigan), but her 13 rebounds led all players. Despite UConn’s height advantage, Baylor dominated the paint, 42-28. But when it counted most, the Huskies’ defense held their opponents scoreless for the final 4:28.

This game was a tremendous contest of toughness, resilience and good basketball. It is a cliché (and also accurate) that “basketball is a game of runs,” and this one certainly had them. The Huskies opened the game with a 16-2 run, and then the Bears scored the next 10 points. The teams traded baskets, and closed the first quarter with UConn up two, 26-24.

In the second period Carrington scored nine points to put her team up by two at the half. They dominated the paint to take that 10-point lead in the middle of the third, but  Bueckers then reeled off 10 points, and Williams nine in the fourth to sneak out with the victory.

In all the game was tied five times and the lead changed four times.

“Yeah, it was game of runs,” Bueckers said. “We got off to a really hot start and they came back and made their runs. I mean it was really up and down sort of high anxiety game.”

“But we just kind of stuck together. Um, obviously there’s a lot of high stress moments but we just try to stay together and just play our basketball. No matter if we’re up 20 down 20 or it’s tied with 20 seconds left. We tried to just stick to our game plan and never let it change.”

The turning point of the game, unfortunately, may have been an injury to Defensive Player of the Year DiDi Richards. Baylor led by 10 points when Richards went down with an  hamstring pull at 2:37 in the third period. The Huskies immediately tore off a 19-0 run spanning the next 9:45 to lead 64-55 with 7:08 remaining.

“The whole story of the game was Didi Richards went down, and the whole momentum of the game shifted,” Bears coach Kim Mulkey said.

Despite the run, and a nine-point deficit, Baylor came back one more time.

Playing off a series of UConn mistakes, they came within a single point with 19 seconds remaining. And then they got a gift after they were forced to foul. Williams stepped to the line with an opportunity to make it a three-point game, and missed both free throws. The Bears advanced the ball with their last timeout, and held for a shot at the victory.

“Well we put ourselves in that [last-shot] situation,” Husky coach Geno Auriemma said. “We made it incredibly difficult on ourselves.”

“Didi Richards getting hurt, I think, probably opened up some things for us defensively, you know on offense, and we were able to take advantage of that. But, you know, late in the game was a couple of violations, a couple of missed free throws and, you know, but we made enough plays.”

Carrington drove to the baseline with one second left and attempted to shoot into a blocking fence created by both Nelson-Ododa and Edwards. Each defender got a hand on the ball, though the block was given to Edwards. Carrington fell to the floor, and there was no whistle.

The Bears fouled Williams with .8 seconds remaining, and she missed yet another free throw, but made the second (which she probably should have missed intentionally) to give UConn a two-point lead. Baylor’s attempt at a court-long catch-and-shoot was intercepted by Bueckers, and the Huskies escaped with a victory.

They will play in their 13th straight Final Four, dating back to when Bueckers was six years old.

Mulkey complained afterwards that Carrington was fouled on the Bears’ final shot attempt. In the context of an extremely physical game, where contact in the paint was part of nearly every contested shot inside 15 feet, the no-call was consistent with the way the officials handled the game for all 40 minutes.

The replay shows that Nelson-Ododa’s hands were not vertical, but she blocked the ball. Edwards appears to be vertical. In my view, neither defender initiated contact.

Any call can be contested, but calls and non-calls at the end are too often given out-sized importance. Whether it was a foul largely depends on one of three things: (1) Are you a Baylor fan? (2) Are you a UConn fan? or (3) Are you a member of the press who would rather dwell on a single moment, call it ‘controversial,’ and diminish or ignore the spectacular play of both teams in one of the most exciting games of an exciting NCAA Tournament?

The reality is that the call stands, as does the Huskies’ win.

“Do you want to go back and check every single call throughout the entire game, and then add them all up?” Auriemma said. “I don’t think I’m going to go back and check all those, and I’m not going back and check on the last one.”

“So, you know, a call is a call and you got to live with it. And the officials are going to make the call they think they need to make. That’s the nature of, that’s the nature of sports.”

This game, as both coaches have said, should have been played in the Final Four.

“I just can’t believe that we’re playing Baylor in the final eight,” Auriemma said on Sunday. “If we’re a number one seed – and supposedly we were the number two, number one – you mean to tell me Baylor’s number seven? So somebody got that wrong. They deserved to be a number one seed, if you look around the tournament.”

Mulkey agreed.

“I wish it was for the national championship and not a chance to get to a Final Four,” she said before the game, “because I think both programs are just elite, and it’s a shame somebody has to lose.”

In this case, the “somebody” was Baylor, but just by a block, after a game in which both teams’ play was Final Four worthy.

The Huskies face Arizona Friday.