MINNEAPOLIS — Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies are back in the NCAA title game for the first time in six years after getting through one of the most difficult seasons of the Hall of Fame coach’s career.
Paige Bueckers scored 14 points and UConn advanced to the national championship game with a 63-58 win over defending champion Stanford on Friday night.
“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.”
The Huskies will face South Carolina for the national championship on Sunday night. The Gamecocks beat Louisville 72-59 in the first game of the national semifinals. UConn and South Carolina met in November in the championship game of a tournament in the Bahamas, and the Gamecocks used a strong fourth quarter to win.
It’s UConn’s first trip to the championship game since 2016, when the Huskies won the last of four straight titles. Since then, the team has suffered heartbreaking defeats in the national semifinals, losing twice in overtime.
“I’ve gone into other games at this time and lost and felt a sense of really took me a long, long time to get over some losses in this particular game,” Auriemma said. “This one I didn’t think it would take a long time since we gave it everything we had and it might not be enough. Fortunately, Stanford didn’t have its best.”
UConn (30-5) is seeking its 12th national championship, and the Huskies have never lost in an NCAA title game.
“We know everybody in the world doesn’t think we’re going to win, so we’re like, we might as well just prove everybody wrong and prove ourselves right. We’ve got one more game, we’re not satisfied with this,” Bueckers said. “We’re just trying to win a national championship and leave everything out on the line and it’s our last game of the season, so we have nothing left to give.”.
They had to work to get to the finals. Leading by 52-44 with 1:26 left, Stanford made a furious rally thanks to a few costly UConn turnovers.
Cameron Brink’s layup with 18.4 seconds left got the Cardinal 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 completely missed a tough contested 3-pointer from the wing with 5.4 seconds left and the Huskies held on for the win.
Haley Jones led the Cardinal (32-4) with 20 points.
“We didn’t play very well tonight,” Stanford coach Tara 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.”
The Huskies advanced to the title game after overcoming having eight players sit out at least two games this season with injury or illness, including Bueckers, who missed nearly three months with 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. She said after the game she was fine.
This was the latest matchup on the biggest stage between the Hall of Fame coaches, 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.
The game got off to a slow start as neither team really could find its shooting touch. UConn led 12-9 after one quarter and was up 27-26 at the half. The teams combined to shoot 36% (23 for 64) in the opening 20 minutes.
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 re-entered the game later on with gauze in her left nostril, but had to leave again just before the half when she stared bleeding again. She played the entire 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 in the Target Center.
UConn post Dorka Juhasz flew in to join her team two days after she had surgery on her fractured left wrist. She suffered the injury in the Huskies’ double-OT win over N.C. State in the regional final Monday. Juhasz sat on the bench in sweats, her arm in a sling.