March 30, 2021 

How Connecticut reached its 13th straight Final Four

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Streak in doubt until the final moments vs. Baylor

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SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 29: Baylor takes on UConn in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 29, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

For 40 minutes, two of the best defensive teams in the country wore one another down. Some games feel like they’ll be decided by who gets last shot. This one felt like a last stop kind of game.

And so it was not a surprise that in the final seconds, we saw Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa close in on DiJonai Carrington, forcing her into a tough, blocked shot — the two teams combined for 15 blocks on the night, so this was merely a logical ending to a ferociously-fought game, won by Connecticut, 69-67.

“This game was tougher than a lot of the national championship games we’ve won,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said following the game.

The win sends UConn on to a 13th straight Final Four, itself a kind of testament that for all the growth of programs around the country, it is still the Huskies who do, every year, what stands as the high-water mark for most other schools.

“Well, it’s a lot to digest,” Auriemma said with a laugh. “But you can only, right now, think about this particular one.” He noted, however, that ten of his players haven’t been to a single one.

Paige Bueckers, who led the Huskies with 28 points while playing every second of this one, said she was six years old when the Final Four streak began.

“As a little kid, I’d be outside shooting hoops dreaming of things like this, but you never know if you’re going to get these chances,” Bueckers said. “…I was about six when that streak started, and that’s a big part of why I came here… I saw that as a young kid, and I thought ‘Man, I want to be a part of that.’”

But if the inevitability of UConn in the Final Four is recognizable in retrospect, it was very much in doubt for much of this game.

Baylor played its typical style of Mulkeyball, throwing size and skill at Connecticut and overwhelming them physically during large parts of the night. Foremost among those doing it was NaLyssa Smith, a future WNBA pro who posted a double-double with 14 and 13.

But the door to her taking over the offensive boards, along with Queen Egbo and Carrington — each one finished with four rebounds apiece on the offensive glass — was opened by Aaliyah Edwards and her uncharacteristic foul trouble, which limited her to just eight first-half minutes.

By halftime, even though the Huskies were shooting 50 percent from the field and had made 5-of-8 from three, they trailed, 39-37.

Baylor has the type of front line, along with the physicality guards like Carrington and DiDi Richards bring, that required a full complement of the UConn bigs to counter them. So when Nelson-Ododa was forced to the bench with her third foul, and UConn already trailing 45-42, the tenor of the game quickly changed. Just a few minutes later, Auriemma hurried Nelson-Ododa back in, UConn now down 53-44. It seemed the pair of UConn bigs would be required just to keep things from spiraling out of control.

“In those huddles, it was just about locking down on the defensive end,” Bueckers said. “We just reiterated the fact that we needed to have ball movement… told each other, ‘We have a whole other quarter, we’ve got this’.”

But just seconds later, Richards fell to the ground with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. And whatever delicate balance exists in the Lady Bears’ attack was lost for the remainder of the game.

“When she when out, obviously you hate to see someone get injured, but we tried to take advantage of it defensively,” Bueckers said of Richards. “…I think it was a huge change in momentum.”

As Auriemma said: “DiDi Richards getting hurt opened up some things for us defensively.”

Asking a team to score consistently against UConn without its only regular point guard is simply asking too much. UConn followed with a 19-0 run. And Baylor scored 14 points the entire rest of the way.

That’s not to say it came easy for UConn, either. Those Baylor bigs didn’t go anywhere, and a tired Bueckers missed her final five shots. She still finished with 28, and was the best player on the floor. That is living up to the hype.

“Coming in, I knew the game was going to be physical against Baylor, so it was about coming in with that mindset,” Bueckers said when it was over.

Her mindset is perhaps the biggest single carrying tool that Paige Bueckers has, however.

“Paige does a lot of things that you can’t explain,” Auriemma said. “And believe me, there’s a lot of things that Paige has to learn to do… but like all great players, Paige can sense the moment… and she has the ability to fill that moment.”

And now she’ll get to show that to the world at a Final Four. Because that’s what players at Connecticut do.

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