April 3, 2021 

‘It wasn’t like anything we’ve seen’: Christyn Williams, UConn no match for Arizona

Wildcats overwhelm Huskies, UConn falls 69-59 in the Final Four

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UConn junior guard Christyn Williams began her final virtual media availability of the season by wiping away tears. She had spent the last 3:51 of her team’s 69-59 loss to Arizona on the bench after a phantom foul was called, her fifth and final. UConn was down nine points and forced to play without its highest scorer (20 points) and one of only three NCAA Tournament veterans.

For a fourth straight year, the UConn Huskies failed to advance to the NCAA championship game. If we were talking about any other program, the opening line to the story would be different, but the Huskies – by way of their 11 national titles – come from a different breed.

UConn vs. Arizona GAME NOTES

UConn vs. Arizona BOX SCORE

Greatness is expected and demanded from every player who chooses to wear the UConn uniform. The basketball world rightly respects what head coach Geno Auriemma and his staff have built. It is a privilege and also a trap of sorts.

When everyone believes you are the best, it’s hard not to believe so yourself. The challenge is to constantly find ways to get better as a team, away from all the headlines, awards, and other outside noise. UConn failed to do that against Arizona Friday night, and it cost the Huskies a trip to the final.

“I think we came out with the wrong mentality. I thought we thought it was gonna be easy, I guess,” Williams told the media. “We got flustered, they had great ball pressure, and it wasn’t like anything that we’ve seen before this season and we just couldn’t get in the flow offensively.”

The truth of the matter is, UConn got beat. That is bound to happen in basketball. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes had her team prepared and relaxed. Auriemma applauded the Wildcats for their performance.

“They played amazing. That first half, it was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done. And I thought the intensity that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end – we just didn’t respond as I hoped we would … all the credit goes to Arizona,” Auriemma said.

Connecticut Huskies players react to a referee’s call against the Arizona Wildcats in the NCAA semifinals at the Alamodome on April 2, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya via Getty Images)

UConn is a young team, with no seniors and limited big-game experience, partly because of the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19. All season, we heard Auriemma discuss his frustration with his young team. That they lacked discipline, that they struggled defensively.

To be fair, we hear this almost every year, to the point that it’s almost become as much a part of the culture as the conference titles, All-America nods, and NCAA championships. It acts as that dose of humility as the rest of the world. But perhaps there was more to it this season. After the Arizona game, Auriemma said:

“I’ve said all along this year to those that followed us all year long: we have a very immature group. Not just young – I mean, we have a very young group – but very immature group. And when we’re high and on top of the world, we think everything’s great. And when things don’t go our way, there’s a poutiness about us, there’s a feeling sorry for ourselves about us that – you don’t win championships if you’re like that unless you are lucky.”

Has this UConn team just been lucky?

There are certainly some games you can’t point to as borderline tests of luck versus will. Look no further than the Baylor game. UConn struggled to hang on, as did the Lady Bears. UConn’s big break in the game came when Baylor point guard DiDi Richards went down with an injury.

An unfortunate turn for Baylor turned into an opportunity for the Huskies. The Huskies showed resilience by seizing it, but the game was far from airtight. Mistakes compounded late in the Elite Eight matchup. Auriemma also felt that the Baylor defense, followed by the Arizona defense Friday, took its toll on his team.

When Alexa Philippou of the Hartford Courant asked Auriemma to respond to Williams’ comment that UConn underestimated Arizona, he wrapped his thoughts by saying that the Huskies spent more time preparing for Arizona than Baylor. Therefore, if his team was unprepared for Friday, it was due to a combination of bad coaching and a lack of maturity.

“We need to grow up if we expect to be back here in the future,” Auriemma said.

Looking ahead

And what a bright future it is expected to be. Yes, Arizona straight-out beat UConn, but let’s not forget that UConn is expected to remain intact while also adding a top recruiting class headlined by No. 1-ranked prospect Azzi Fudd.

No team is ever exactly the same year-to-year, but UConn will be pretty close. If its immaturity undid the 2020-21 group – not to mention dealing with a pandemic – the lessons learned have potential to fuel this young team.

“We don’t have any seniors, so everybody’s gonna be back,” Williams said. Auriemma also shared that some of UConn’s greatest runs have come after heartbreaking defeats in the NCAA Tournament:

“We’ve lost 10 games in the Final Four over the years. And each of them obviously were impactful in some way or another … I do think that these games do tend to stay with you a little bit longer. And I would say that, at least on my end, you know, I’m going to be coaching in the Final Four next year on April 2.

“I believe that what we learned this year, through all the ups and downs, is going to really benefit us for the next couple of years, for sure. I remember saying that in 2008. We played and we lost to Stanford in the semifinal. It was Maya Moore’s freshman year. And I said, ‘We’ll be back.’ And we went back and we were undefeated the next two seasons.”

As Sheryl Crow once sang, the first cut is the deepest. With seven freshman and two sophomores, this loss – and the entire tournament, really – might be what fuels the fire. Skill is one thing, and luck can come and go, but it’s the will to win that secures championships. Shedding a few tears now to lay a foundation for the future might be the best thing to happen to Paige Bueckers and company.

And yes, I typed Paige & Co. While I maintain that the national coverage can and should be more evenly spread out, there is no denying that the freshman Bueckers is a young, developing, and very unique talent.

“I feel like I sort of took steps and sort of see what it takes to be to be great. Just looking forward to getting back to work and winning a national championship next year,” Bueckers said, as reported by ESPN.

She fell victim to the pouts Auriemma talked about, without question. Here’s hoping she refines her passion and swagger, as opposed to losing it altogether.

Written by Erica L. Ayala

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