Could Arizona defeat heavily-favored UConn?

The Huskies celebrate their Final Four berth Monday. UConn Athletics pnoto.

UConn has won 11 national championships. UConn has won six of the last 12. UConn has never lost the championship game. It follows that they have lost six of the last 12 national semifinals.

The Huskies earned their 13th consecutive Final Four appearance a few days ago with a two-point win over Baylor.

Their opponent, Arizona, has not been in the NCAA Tournament since 2005. This is the Wildcat’s first Final Four. Their best previous tournament was in 1998, when they lost to UConn, 74-57 in the regional semifinal (third round), when current coach Adia Barnes was the star of the team. Arizona did win the WNIT in 2019.

Almost nobody expects the Wildcats to upset the Huskies. Everybody is probably right. But not certainly right.

UConn is playing its best basketball of the year, with all five starters averaging double figures in the tournament. Christyn Williams averaged 23 points in Regional play, while Paige Bueckers averaged 24.

Arizona is also playing its best basketball of the year, with star guard Aari McDonald averaging over 25 points and shooting nearly 55 percent from the field during the Tournament, including 50 percent on 14-28 threes. (Her season average was below 33 percent).

The coaches know the teams much better than I do. Here’s what they said:

Arizona: “Arizona is a perfect example of a team that really understands who they are,” Husky coach Geno Auriemma said Thursday. “They know defensively what they can do what they want to do how to do it.”

“You know they’re aggressive, they just play so hard, and they’re so competitive. They’re swarming. I was really really impressed on the defensive end, how hard they work and how difficult they make getting open shots.”

“The offensive end. When you have such a dynamic guard like Aari McDonald, that draws so much attention, and can make everybody around them better, and playing the way she’s playing right now. The other players just play with so much confidence, they shoot the ball with confidence they just, play with a sense of calmness on offense. And they, they get the shot that they want.”

Connecticut: “We know they’re tremendously talented offensively and a really good team,” Barnes said. “And they flow really well, they run a lot of great stuff, but we have to be able defend it and I think that’s what will give us a chance.”

“We absolutely cannot let them get going in transition. Cannot let them control the tempo. And we have to make them work for hard shots. They’re going to score; they have great talent. But we have to make them work for every shot. The first thing we have absolutely have to do is play Arizona defense.  We’ve gotten here because of our defense, and it creates offense for us so we have to play our style of defense, regardless of the, you know, the offense that UConn has.”

How does UConn win?

UConn is superior to their opponents in nearly every category of offense and defense. Their offense is far more productive and varied than the Wildcats’, averaging .534 shooting for the tournament and .404 from three. Five Husky starters average double figures, and they have averaged an impressive 86.5 points per game in the tournament.

To win they must control the pace to their own speed and protect the ball, because Arizona scores one third of its baskets off turnovers.

Slowing McDonald and shutting down the rest of the team is also key. The Husky defense has been stifling all year, and even with a focus, and perhaps a double team, on McDonald, they have more length and equal agility to the Wildcats.

The third key to a victory is in rebounding and blocking shots. Arizona’s tallest starter is 6 feet, while UConn starts 6-5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa and 6-3 Aaliyah Edwards.

How does UConn lose?

Play a B-minus game. Attempt too many threes, and miss most of them. Get any starter in foul trouble or sustain a key injury. Give up too many threes to the Wildcats’ newly-successful outside shooters. Make too many live-ball turnovers. Bueckers takes the day off.

Arizona players rejoice after winning and advancing to the Final Four. Arizona Athletics photo.

How does Arizona win?

McDonald continues to dominate on offense and defense.

“She’s fearless as an offensive player,” Auriemma said. “She’s a first team all American defensive player.”

“There have been numerous times more than you can count, where she just carries her team and wills them to win both was her physical talents and the intangibles that she brings how hard she plays.’

Auriemma said he had asked Jamelle Elliot, who scouted Arizona, “Jay, what are we doing [with McDonald]?” She said, ‘I don’t know, coach, we’re playing against Allen Iverson.’ So I said okay, I have to call some of my old coaching buddies in the old Big East and go, ‘how do you how do you prepare for Allen Iverson?’”

“And I don’t I don’t know that there’s anything that any one player has been able to do to completely stop her from doing what she wants to do. So, our staff feels like this is probably the most dominant guard that we will have played against this year. No question.”

The Wildcats need to keep hitting threes as they have in the tournament. A team that during the season shot just 156 threes in 25 games at a .338 clip, has hit 35 in four tournament games, at .435.

Secondly, others besides just McDonald and Cate Reese need to excel offensively. Arizona does not milk the clock as Texas does, but they have averaged just 67 points a contest to the Huskies’ 86.

Finally, the Wildcats need to continue to protect the ball and turn UConn over, then score off those turnovers. But the Huskies are not turnover-prone, and generally don’t give up live-ball turnovers, even against the top-ranked Baylor defense.

How does Arizona lose?

The underdogs will likely lose if they play anything but perfectly. If they rely too much on McDonald to carry the offensive load alone and allow their opponents to dictate the pace of the game, UConn will come out with the win.

The Huskies and Wildcats tip at 6:30 p.m. PT/9:30 p.m. ET Friday.