March 30, 2022 

2022 Final Four preview: Can UConn dethrone the Cardinal?

Historic programs meet for the 19th time in history on Friday

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma vividly remembers the last time his team played at a Final Four in Minneapolis. It was 1995 and en route to the program’s first of 11 national championships.

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“Every memory that I have about that game is burned into my mind. I can probably remember every single possession,” Auriemma said. “I can remember every time-out, halftime, what we did, where we stayed, everything because everything was so big. We were riding that undefeated season. We were getting unprecedented attention that had never been bestowed on a women’s basketball program. So we were dealing with a lot, and the excitement was unbelievable.”

In the semifinals of that historic 1995 Final Four, Auriemma’s Huskies faced a foe that has become quite familiar over the past 27 years: the Stanford Cardinal. On April 1, 1995, UConn defeated Stanford 87-60 in front of 18,038, the then-largest crowd to ever watch a Final Four women’s basketball game.

Stanford and UConn occupy rarified air in women’s college basketball history. The two programs have reached a combined 37 Final Fours (22 UConn, 15 Stanford). Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer is the winningest coach in the history of the game. Geno trails her total wins record by just seven games. The two coaches are legends and pioneers of the sport.

“You know, we have been competing for a long time, playing against each other,” said VanDerveer. “I think it goes back to actually when he was at Virginia as an assistant coach coaching Dawn Staley, so the three of us are here. But he’s done a great job at Connecticut. They have had tremendous success. I’ve learned a lot from competing against them.”

“I would say — you know, Geno likes to kind of get in little battles with people. Maybe it was Pat [Summitt] when Pat was alive, or Muffet [McGraw], but I don’t know. I like him, and I think we get along really well. I’ve never felt that we were adversaries in a negative way but more competitors in a very good way.”

On Friday night, the perennial powerhouses will meet for the 19th time in program history for a chance to play in the national championship game on Sunday.

Breaking down the match-up

In Friday night’s iteration of the clash of women’s basketball titans, the defending national champion Stanford Cardinal enters the game-riding 23-game winning streak. Last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Haley Jones, seems to be able to do everything on the court for the Cardinal, and sophomore Cameron Brink is emerging as a young star.

“I think that our team has — we have great weapons, [Cameron Brink], Haley [Jones]. Lexie [Hull] is playing extremely well, Anna Wilson,” said Tara VanDerveer. “We have a deep bench…Every player on the court is a quality player, talented player, and it’s also not so much the individual match-ups but their ability to play together.”

The Cardinal have a long, athletic roster. This could signal trouble for the Huskies, who suddenly have less depth in the post. UConn lost 6’5 forward Dorka Juhász for the season to a wrist injury sustained during Monday’s Elite Eight game.

“It’s kind of par for the course for this particular season. We lose a big kid that is playing in their first NCAA Tournament — and Dorka was so excited that she couldn’t see straight in the first couple games. She was finally getting her legs under her [Monday] and played a phenomenal three and a half minutes. Huge impact on the game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

“As fate would have it, the fracture in the wrist, and now she’s out for the tournament. Devastating for her. But it could only happen to us three days before we play the longest, most athletic front line, the tallest group of players that exist in the tournament, that being Stanford’s team and their amazing post players.”

Both sophomore Aaliyah Edwards (10 points, six rebounds) and senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa (six points, seven rebounds) stepped up big after Juhász exited the game on Monday. UConn will need all of the production they can get out of their bigs to survive and advance against a talented, athletic Stanford team.

A homecoming

On Monday, Reigning National Player of The Year, Paige Bueckers, showed some magic on the court in UConn’s thrilling double-overtime Elite Eight victory over NC State. The sophomore scored 27 points on 10-15 shooting, with 15 of those points coming during clutch late-game moments. With the win, the Huskies punched a ticket to Minneapolis, ten miles from Bueckers’ hometown of Hopkins, Minnesota.

This season, Bueckers missed 19 games for UConn due to a knee injury sustained during a Dec. 5 game against Notre Dame. Since her return late in the season, fans only saw glimpses of the “old Paige.” As she returned to the court, her movements were less fluid, her decision-making more hesitant. Then, during Monday’s Elite Eight game, her basketball instincts took over and she willed the Huskies to their 14th consecutive Final Four.

There’s no doubt that the Bueckers faithful will show up in droves to support their local heroine. It remains to be seen if that means that there will be a decidedly pro-UConn crowd in Minneapolis this weekend.

Paige is already making noise in her hometown. As ESPN’s Alexa Philippou reported, Bueckers signed a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal as a brand ambassador for the education platform Chegg. As part of the deal, Chegg will partner with hunger relief company Goodr to host a pop-up grocery market on Saturday in Minneapolis to provide 6,000 free meals to families experiencing food insecurity.

UConn and Stanford take the Final Four stage in Minneapolis Friday at 9:30 pm E.T. The game will be televised on ESPN. ESPN will stream a MegaCast presentation across multiple platforms for the semifinals and championship game.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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