April 6, 2024 

UConn Huskies run out of gas, break down in national semifinal loss

A season of adversity stalls out in Final Four

CLEVELAND — As spring 2023 turned to summer in Storrs, Connecticut, the UConn machine seemed to be running as usual. With a healthy Paige Bueckers, All-American talent in Aaliyah Edwards and Azzi Fudd, steady senior point guard Nika Mühl, fifth-year wing Aubrey Griffin, and a talented freshman class, the Huskies were poised to return to the top of women’s college basketball.

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“If you would have talked to me in June this year, I would tell you, yeah, it was going to be us and South Carolina playing for the national championship,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma told reporters on Thursday.

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As the season progressed, however, the well-oiled UConn machine began to run into some technical malfunctions. Freshman big Jana El Alfy tore her Achilles before ever taking the court. Fudd tore her ACL. Ayanna Patterson (left knee surgery) and Caroline Ducharme (head and neck injuries) were ruled out for the season. In January, Griffin’s season ended with an ACL tear.

“You have to look at your team, and you have to say, ‘Do we have an answer for everything that happens?’ And if the answer’s no, then you just have to cross your fingers and hope that thing doesn’t happen, or those two things that you know you have no answer for [don’t happen],” Auriemma said.

On Friday night against Iowa in the Final Four, UConn started the game with some gas left in the tank and one foot firmly on the pedal. The Huskies jumped out to a 13-7 lead by the first media timeout, propelled by strong 3-point shooting from their guards. On the defensive end, the Huskies held consensus national player of the year Caitlin Clark to just two points in the first quarter and forced seven Iowa turnovers.

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Halfway through the second quarter, UConn’s lead ballooned to 12 following a steal (one of eight in the half) and a Bueckers 3-pointer.

Iowa didn’t let the game get away, though. The Hawkeyes went on a run of their own to cut the UConn lead to six at halftime.

“[The] first half was a little rough for us, but we really kept believing,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said postgame. “And I’m just so proud of the character of these young women to maintain their composure. … We got it to within six at halftime and we felt good about that.”

UConn guard Paige Bueckers goes up for a right-handed shot surrounded by Iowa defenders.
UConn senior Paige Bueckers goes up for a shot against Iowa defenders Hannah Stuelke (45) and Caitlin Clark (22) during a Final Four game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

In the third quarter, Iowa came out with a renewed sense of urgency. The quarter began with a Kate Martin steal and assist to Gabbie Marshall, who sunk a 3-pointer to bring Iowa within three. And by the end of the quarter, it was all tied up at 51.

Entering the fourth quarter, UConn’s gas light was blinking as fouls added up, shots rimmed out and costly turnovers turned into Iowa baskets. With six players in sweats unable to sub into the game, UConn’s options dwindled as Iowa took a six-point lead with just over two minutes to go.

When it appeared UConn would sputter to a full stop, the short-handed team had one last acceleration. An Edwards bucket brought the Huskies within four points, 70-66. A Mühl steal and 3-pointer made it a one-point game with 41 seconds remaining. Iowa’s next possession ended with a steal by freshman KK Arnold to give UConn a chance at the final possession of the game with nine seconds on the clock.

In the end, though, after a controversial moving screen call on Edwards with three seconds to go, the Huskies finally ran out of gas. A Clark free throw sealed the deal, and Iowa advanced to the national championship game with a 71-69 victory. The Huskies are headed home after one game in Cleveland, with no hardware to show for it.

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“After we beat USC [in the Elite Eight] … people always ask you how you feel about winning a game like [that]. And sometimes you just can’t put into words how you feel. You just have to feel it. You have to be there and you have to have been there, be a part of it. The same thing applies to when you lose at this part of the season. It’s hard to explain how you feel when the season ends so suddenly,” Auriemma told reporters after Friday’s game.

“But we put ourselves in a position to win a game that we probably had no business even being in, given the circumstances that we worked with.”

A tearful goodbye

As UConn’s three seniors — Bueckers, Edwards and Mühl — tearfully took to the dais to speak with reporters postgame, the season’s trials were on display on their faces. Even more painfully, they had just played their final game together as Huskies. Edwards and Mühl are leaving the program after graduation, and Bueckers will return to Connecticut without them.

“The only thing you can really feel right now is the sting of the loss. There’s going to be tears regardless at the end of the season just because it’s my last time playing with these guys,” Bueckers said. “It takes a while to process after the season, win or loss, the whole journey of it all. But you just, for this year especially, from my perspective, you just appreciate it as it goes along, just being on this team.”

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Mühl leaves as the program’s all-time leader in assists, a mark she reached in UConn’s second-round NCAA Tournament victory over Syracuse. She earned the love of UConn fans with her hard-nosed style of play and defensive intensity. As UConn faced injuries during her tenure — most notably Bueckers’ season-ending injury last season — Mühl stepped into larger roles and delivered.

“I’m just so grateful to Coach for bringing me all the way from Croatia to here. Never in my life would I have thought that I would be here sharing this court with these amazing people, great players, great coaches, great staff and just enjoying every single moment of it,” Mühl said.

“I’m pissed right now. It really hurts, but I know that I’ll look back onto this and I’ll feel nothing but being thankful and grateful and blessed for what I’ve built here.”

UConn guard Nika Mühl looks to make a pass from the top of the key.
UConn senior guard Nika Mühl handles the ball against Iowa in the Final Four at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Edwards steps into the next phase of her basketball career as a First Team All-American. Her name will hang forever in UConn’s practice facility alongside the program’s other First Team All-Americans. She grew immensely during her four years in the program and became a consistent and efficient post presence in a guard-heavy rotation.

“To the national media, she’s under-appreciated, under-respected,” Bueckers said. “The UConn fans, they know every single game, every single day what she brings, and that’s a competitive spirit, drive, determination, domination. … Aaliyah is everything to this program. She embodies this program. And she’s going down as one of the greats.”

Related content: Locked On Women’s Basketball: How does UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards project as a draft prospect?

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Although they never won an elusive national championship — an unrealistic standard even for a program that’s won 11 titles — Edwards and Mühl have accomplished so much during their time as Huskies. The four-time BIG EAST champions have reached three Final Fours, etched their names in UConn’s record books, and grown tremendously as individuals and teammates. Bueckers has been alongside them the entire way and will be a seasoned fifth-year leader next season.

“It doesn’t always manifest itself in wins and losses, but you would hope that if players have played for you for four years, that they would feel the same way about you that you feel about them and how much they’ve impacted you as a coach and what … you’ve been able to take from them,” Auriemma said. “And that’s what makes this — when it’s done right, that’s what makes this profession as great as it is. …

“I hope that they understand the impact they had on me.”

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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