SAN ANTONIO — With freshman phenom Paige Bueckers in its backcourt, UConn had an edge in nearly every game it played this season.
Then came its matchup against Arizona in the women’s Final Four. Arizona smothered Bueckers, making it nearly impossible for her to get an open shot. When she did, she was off.
The No. 1 seed Huskies couldn’t get anything going offensively and trailed for nearly the entire game. Despite a late surge in the fourth quarter, they simply didn’t have enough to come back in a stunning 69-59 loss to the Wildcats on Friday night.
Bueckers finished with a quiet 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting in the final game of her freshman year.
The performance was surprising from a UConn team that lost only one game all season — back in January to Arkansas. The Huskies have now lost in four straight Final Four semifinals.
It was Arizona’s first win against an AP-ranked No. 1 team, and now the Wildcats advance to the first national championship game in program history. They will face Pac-12 rival Stanford in the title game Sunday. It’s the first time the Pac-12 has had two teams face off in the championship game.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes, who played at Arizona, has done a remarkable job turning around a Wildcats program that doesn’t have the same history or tradition as UConn and coach Geno Auriemma, in his 21st Final Four. But the Wildcats took it to the Huskies as if they were the veteran team, and they did that behind their veteran leader Aari McDonald, who was clutch not only Friday night with 26 points but throughout the NCAA tournament.
It seemed clear from the outset that Arizona wanted to deliver a message. Maybe that had something to do with being left out of a promotional video for the women’s Final Four. Maybe the Wildcats just wanted to show that a new program had arrived to take center stage. Either way, Arizona totally locked down UConn, making the impossible seem easy.
In the first half alone, Arizona contested 15 of UConn’s 25 field goal attempts, and held the Huskies to 3-of-15 shooting on those attempts. In the entire game, UConn was just 6-of-31 on contested shots, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Layups weren’t going in, and with Bueckers quickly becoming a nonfactor, only Christyn Williams kept UConn in the game in the first half. Still, the Huskies trailed by 10 at halftime, having finished the first half with more turnovers (nine) than field goals (eight).
Bueckers and UConn have been a team that can get hot at any moment. Headed into the game, Bueckers had scored 90 total points in the NCAA tournament. But the shots remained elusive, and Arizona continued with its relentless pressure, playing with a confidence that suggested not for a minute that this was its first time playing in the Final Four.
Through three quarters, UConn had 39 points — its fewest since quarters were implemented in the 2015-16 season. Still, the Huskies made a push late in the fourth quarter, narrowing the gap to 60-55 with 1:23 left, bringing the crowd inside the Alamodome to their feet. Would this be the run everybody expected to see from the usually fast-charging Huskies?
No, it would not.
Now UConn will have to wait another year to try to win its first national championship since 2016. While Arizona moves on, in an attempt to make history of its own.