April 5, 2024 

Huskies fly under the radar into 23rd Final Four

'Nobody expected us to be here'

CLEVELAND — The Connecticut Huskies are no strangers to the Final Four. Since 1991, the program has competed in the sport’s final weekend 22 times, and this weekend in Cleveland will be the 23rd. From 2008–22 the Huskies reached 14 consecutive Final Fours, a streak that was broken by their 2023 Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State.

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For much of the 90’s, 2000’s and 2010’s, UConn — along with the Pat Summitt-led Tennessee Lady Vols — dominated the sport and were mainstays in the Final Four. The best players were recruited to those two programs and spent four years building out their legacies from Storrs, CT or Knoxville, TN. They got the majority of the media attention and represented the must-watch event in the sport.

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“I think when you’re in the middle of it, you maybe don’t see the forest from the trees, or something like that. But during those moments where we were getting the majority of the attention — I remember one time somebody asked one of the coaches before the NCAA Tournament, ‘Do you have a preference who you want to win the NCAA Tournament?’ … And they said I don’t care, as long as it’s not Tennessee or Connecticut,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma told reporters.

“There was this point where people were, you know, dying for some other story line to appear. And there probably were some story lines but nobody really wanted to pay attention. There weren’t enough people that they could look into what all the other story lines were.”

On Friday night, fans will tune in to see a star-driven storyline — Caitlin Clark of Iowa vs. Paige Bueckers of UConn. Both athletes are supremely talented and have garnered for themselves plenty of attention and fame both on and off the court. They also have a shared history of competing both with and against each other prior to their college years.

“I know Caitlin. Of course, we go way back. Midwestern, we had a lot of battles in AAU and stuff like that, we played together on Team USA,” Bueckers told reporters. “She’s just a competitor. She wants to win. She has just intangibles of the game. She knows how to play, a great IQ. I think the biggest thing about her is she competes and she’s just a winner, she wants to win at all costs … It’s great for the game, and to be at this level, on this high of stakes, to see where we were in AAU competing against each other, it’s just really cool to see.”

The Clark/Bueckers storyline is of course compelling, but perhaps overshadows the broader storyline that the Huskies, despite losing half of their roster to season-ending injuries, even advanced to the Final Four in the first place. One season-ending injury is painful for a program — seven in one season is devastating.

“Everybody talks about what players missing does to the team. So, yeah, you only have seven players available, let’s say. Wow, it must be a real strain on those seven players that are available,” Auriemma said to reporters. “But very few people talk about what’s it doing to the ones that aren’t playing, what effect does it have on them?

“It’s something that they’ve worked for their whole life as a basketball player to be able to participate in events like this, and so they can’t. That exists through the whole season. They show up to games, and they can’t play. They have to watch their teammates play.”

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The Huskies have taken everything in stride, gone through the painful motions of losing teammates and friends to injury and have found ways to win anyway. After starting the season 4–3 the Huskies finished out the season 29–2, going undefeated in conference play and clinching a 22nd BIG EAST Tournament championship. They’ve done so behind strong contributions from not only Bueckers, but fellow All-American forward Aaliyah Edwards, who averages 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Point guard Nika Mühl steadies the team and always takes the toughest defensive assignment (which on Friday will be Clark). Those three have been joined in the starting lineup by freshmen Ashlynn Shade and KK Arnold, who have been asked to step into much larger roles than expected and excelled. The story of this season is resilience in the face of loss and disappointment.

“When you’re dealt with so many things that are unexpected and you’re kind of sick of all those injuries and all the challenges thrown your way, I feel like at first it’s obviously a shock,” Mühl told reporters. “It’s a mourning stage that you have to go through with your team, with yourself. But as the time goes on, you kind of realize that you can either sit here and keep mourning forever, or you can just step up for your team and play for the people that are also on the bench that cannot play … nobody expected us to be here. And that only means that we used all of those things to make each other tough.”

The path to the Final Four has been windy for this season’s UConn team and their story, unlike years past, isn’t the top headline heading into Friday’s semifinal. That said, Auriemma expects that casual observers tuning in to witness this season’s must-see storylines will likely react to the Huskies the same way they always have.

“I’ve noticed over the years … when people see us play for the very first time, two things happen. One, they fall in love with all of my players because of the way they play and the way they conduct themselves. And they go, yeah, he really is a shit head. So those two things will still be true on Friday,” Auriemma said.

Keys to the game

Friday night will be the third meeting between Iowa and UConn, with each of the previous two matchups occurring within the past three seasons. The Huskies are 2-0 in the series, having clinched 20-point win against the Hawkeyes in the 2021 Sweet 16 and an 86-79 win in the championship game of the first Phil Knight Legacy women’s tournament in late 2022.

“It’s completely different teams. It’s completely different — it’s going to be a completely different atmosphere. It’s a much more important game now,” Mühl told reporters. “So I feel like once you count all those things in, I don’t think you can really compare those previous two games to this one. But can we watch the game and take some things that we did well against them and that we didn’t do well? Yes, of course. But I feel like we’re more focusing on us and our game.”

Connecticut Huskies players Paige Bueckers (5) , Christyn Williams (13) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (20) celebrate against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2021 Women’s NCAA Tournament at Alamodome. (Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

With a trip to the national finals on the line, how do the Huskies plan on stopping Caitlin Clark, who exploded for 41 points (including nine 3-pointers) against LSU in the Elite Eight?

“We don’t. We don’t plan on stopping her,” Geno Auriemma said. “Because I tried calling all the other coaches that have stopped her, and none of them answer the phone. So we’re going to have to find a different way to win than stopping Caitlin Clark.”

Clark is going to get her points — she averages 32 of them per game for a reason. The key to a UConn victory likely lies in getting stops against the rest of Iowa’s supporting cast — fifth-year guards Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall average 13 and six points a game respectively, and both have the ability to get hot from beyond the arc. Junior guard Sydney Affolter had a breakout performance in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, putting up 15 and 16 points respectively on 50% shooting from the field. Her performances earned her a spot on the All-Tournament Team.

In the post, Iowa is anchored by 6’2 sophomore Hannah Stuelke, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds per game. If Stuelke gets into foul trouble or needs some minutes to rest, backup post Addison O’Grady can hold things down in the paint for Iowa.

Iowa is an experienced team that’s been here before, and UConn’s seven-player rotation includes four freshman. In order to win, the Huskies will rely on efficient performances from their All-Americans Bueckers and Edwards and will need their freshmen to embrace the moment and hit shots. At the same time, the Huskies need to stay out of foul trouble. With such a tight rotation, they don’t have the luxury of a deep bench to bail them out should the starters rack up fouls. Like it has all season, UConn’s toughness and determination will put them in a position to win and play for a 12th national title on Sunday.

“I think what happened to them two years ago — you know, you think about Paige, Nika, Aaliyah, Aubrey even the struggles that they’ve had — starting with COVID, and losing players for a whole season, losing players for half a season. Everything that’s happened to them has just made them stronger, it’s made them tougher, it’s made them come together more. There’s a bond between these kids that’s as strong, if not stronger, than any other group I’ve ever coached,” Auriemma told reporters.

“Will it hold up in the Final Four? I don’t know. The Final Four, talent takes over in the Final Four. We’ll see what happens.”

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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