Women’s Final Four: Connecticut beats Stanford, will face South Carolina for title
Paige Bueckers scored 14 points, and Connecticut advanced to the national championship game with a 63-58 win over defending champion Stanford on Friday night.
The Huskies will face South Carolina for the national championship Sunday night. The Gamecocks beat the Cardinals 72-59 in the first game of the Final Four.
It’s Connecticut’s first trip to the championship game since 2016, when the Huskies won the last of four consecutive titles. Since then, the team has suffered heartbreaking defeats in the national semifinals, losing twice in overtime.
Second-seeded UConn (30-5) will be seeking its 12th national championship. The Huskies have never lost in an NCAA title game.
“We kept our composure. ... [Stanford is] one of the smartest teams in the country,” Bueckers said. “... We’re just trying to win a national championship and leave everything out on the line and have nothing left to give.”
The Huskies had to work to get to the final. Leading by 52-44 with 1:26 left, top-seeded Stanford (32-4) made a furious rally thanks to a few costly UConn turnovers.
UCLA fell short of avenging an earlier loss of the season on Thursday, falling to South Dakota State 62-59 in the WNIT Final Four.
Cameron Brink’s layup with 18.4 seconds left got the Cardinal to within 60-58. UConn was able to work seven seconds off the clock before Christyn Williams was fouled with 11 seconds left. The senior guard calmly swished both free throws to restore a two-possession lead.
Ashten Prechtel missed a tough contested three-pointer from the wing with 5.4 seconds left, and the Huskies held on for the win.
Haley Jones led the Cardinal with 20 points.
This has been the most challenging year of Geno Auriemma’s Hall of Fame coaching career. Eight UConn players had to sit out at least two games this season because of injury or illness, including Bueckers, who missed nearly three months because of a left knee injury suffered in early December.
In the fourth quarter, Bueckers came up grimacing when she went down hard going for a defensive rebound. She left the game for a few minutes, and every time she hit the floor, she seemed to check on her knee.
“We didn’t play our A game on the offensive end, but we did the things we needed to do when we had to do them,” Auriemma said. “We came up big. Don’t know what more I can say about this group than we have been saying. Pretty remarkable, to be honest with you.”
This was the latest matchup on the biggest stage between Hall of Fame coaches Tara VanDerveer and Auriemma, who are first and second on the all-time wins list in women’s basketball. Their two teams met 27 years ago in Minneapolis to the day in the national semifinals, and the Huskies also won that one. They went on to win their first title that year.
“We didn’t play very well tonight,” VanDerveer said. “We really struggled running our offense. There was some self-inflicted wounds with what we did out there. It was disappointing. Thought our defense worked really hard.”
Cardinal guard Lexie Hull had to leave the game a few times in the first half to deal with a bloody nose. She left in the first quarter after getting fouled on a drive. Stanford couldn’t get the blood all cleared up from Hull, so Anna Wilson took the two free throws for her. Hull reentered the game later on with gauze in her left nostril but had to leave again just before the half when she started bleeding again. She played the second half without further issues.
The game served as a homecoming for Bueckers, who grew up 10 miles from Minneapolis and had many friends and family at the game. She played several times in high school in the state tournament at Target Center.
No. 1 South Carolina 72, No. 1 Louisville 59
Aliyah Boston had 23 points and 18 rebounds to back up her Associated Press national player of the year award and carry the Gamecocks to the NCAA championship game with a victory over the Cardinals in the first semifinal game.
Brea Beal matched her season high with 12 points and helped hold Louisville star Hailey Van Lith to nine points on four-for-11 shooting as South Carolina (34-2) delivered another stifling defensive performance for coach Dawn Staley.
Destanni Henderson scored 11 points on three-for-six shooting from three-point range and had four assists for the Gamecocks, who improved to 13-0 this season against AP-ranked opponents.
Emily Engstler led Louisville with 18 points and nine rebounds. The Cardinals went one for eight from three-point range and were never able to find a rhythm in the half court against the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament.
Kianna Smith and Olivia Cochran each scored 14 points for the Cardinals (29-5), who were the only team in this Final Four without a title. This was their fourth trip to the national semifinals in coach Jeff Walz’s 15 seasons.
The Cardinals, one of the three No. 1 seeds in this Final Four, made it out of the Wichita Regional without any trouble. Van Lith, the relentless sophomore guard with the perpetually flopping blond pigtails, hit the 20-point mark in each of their first four tournament games.
Van Lith met her match with Beal, who had a four-inch height advantage and shadowed her all over the court as she often does to the opponent’s most dangerous player. Van Lith, whose first basket came on a knifing drive for a layup with 1:43 left in the second quarter, had two jumpers blocked by Beal and three turnovers in the first half.
The Gamecocks, who were the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the AP poll this season, squeezed their first four tournament opponents in the Greensboro Regional to a bleak average of 41.2 points on their way to a fourth Final Four in the last seven years.
South Carolina, which won the title in 2017, was painfully ousted in the semifinals last season by one point to eventual champion Stanford when Boston’s putback attempt bounced off the rim at the buzzer. The 6-foot-5 junior from the U.S. Virgin Islands has bounced right back a year later.
“You see happy tears, happy tears, right now,” Boston said in her postgame TV interview. “I’m just thanking God we have one more game.”
Staley will try to win her second national championship with South Carolina eight months after the Hall of Famer led the U.S. team to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics.
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