By Mike Harley | @mhar3481
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS — The Connecticut Huskies held off defending national champion Stanford Friday night at the Target Center, defeating the Cardinal 63-58 to advance to the national championship game against South Carolina on Sunday. Despite UConn’s 19 turnovers, including eight in the fourth quarter alone, the Huskies will have the opportunity to extend their 11-0 record in national title games.
Sophomore guard Paige Bueckers led the Huskies with 14 points, shooting 7-for-13 from the field. In a game where both offenses struggled, UConn hit critical free throws down the stretch to put the Cardinal away.
The Huskies will face the No.1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in Sunday night’s championship game. Connecticut (30-5) has now won 15 games in a row, and 21 of its last 22.
While UConn has reached the Final Four for a record 14th straight year, this is the first time since 2016 that the program has advanced to the title game. “I think in the back of our minds we knew what we needed to do to win this game, and I think our defense was the biggest emphasis for us, especially in that second half,” senior guard Evina Westbrook said after the contest. Westbrook played a crucial role for the Huskies in the semifinal win, providing 12 points and six rebounds off the bench.
Stanford (32-4) has been an excellent 3-point shooting team throughout the season, but the Cardinal shot just 4-for-23 from beyond the arc. Junior guard Haley Jones led the way for the Cardinal scoring 20 points and collecting 11 rebounds in the losing effort. Sophomore forward Cameron Brink was the only other Cardinal player to score in double figures, finishing the contest with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Despite the loss, Jones remained positive in the postgame as she looked forward to the potential of the team returning next season. “The ball doesn’t always go in the basket,” Jones said. “You’ve got to swallow that pill and move from it, but I think it’s motivation for next season.”
While acknowledging his team didn’t play its best basketball tonight, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma talked about how difficult it is to win in the Final Four. “This is a really, really hard game to win,” he said. “Stanford is the defending national champions and they have everybody back, and they’re not playing Sunday night. It’s a hard game to win.”
The UConn head coach also touched on how crucial free throws by freshman guard Azzi Fudd were down the stretch for the Huskies. “A lot of little things that had to go right, and Azzi just keeps making free throws in every big game,” Auriemma said. Senior guard Christyn Williams sealed the win by making two clutch free throws with 11 seconds left to extend UConn’s lead to 62-58.
Auriemma knows his team will have to play better to win the national title. “We make it so hard on ourselves that we make it twice as hard as it already is,” Auriemma said. “And hopefully (Sunday) we can just worry about beating South Carolina and not beat ourselves as much.”