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UConn’s bend-but-not-break mentality takes them to brink of NCAA title

Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd react after Aaliyah Edwards draws a charge late in the fourth quarter. (Bri Lewerke/Just Women's Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS — Before UConn’s two games in Bridgeport, the ones they needed to win to earn a 14th straight trip to the Final Four, the players took time to ruminate on the season they’d had.

There were injuries up and down the roster, including the three-month absence of star guard Paige Bueckers. There were humiliating losses to unranked teams. And on Monday, they’d lost key bench contributor Dorka Juhász to a gruesome wrist fracture.

Even for UConn, the 11-time national champion powerhouse, the odds of them making a run at the national championship seemed long during the low points. And this week, few pundits had them beating the reigning champion Stanford Cardinal on Friday without Juhász.

The players, and head coach Geno Auriemma, knew all of this. Instead of letting the adversity break them, they entered Friday night’s game stronger for it and outlasted Stanford in a defensive-minded battle, 63-58, to advance to the national championship game against South Carolina on Sunday, UConn’s first appearance there since 2016.

“So many years that we’ve come here, we’ve been a No. 1 seed, we had the best team going in. Everybody knew it, and it was, let’s just go do our thing and I don’t think anybody is going to be able to beat us if we play our A game,” Auriemma said.

“This year, I didn’t think any of that.”

UConn led Stanford for most of the game Friday night, but the advantage never felt safe.

Azzi Fudd and Aaliyah Edwards got into foul trouble in the second quarter, forcing Auriemma to dip into his reserves earlier than expected. Christyn Williams struggled to get into a shooting rhythm, going just 3-for-13 from the floor. Olivia Nelson-Ododa didn’t convert her first field goal until late in the third quarter, the result of a physical battle with Stanford’s Cameron Brink. And Paige Bueckers, UConn’s de-facto closer, was subbed out with 5:07 remaining in the game and later returned walking gingerly on her leg.

So, when Stanford started to cut into UConn’s lead with under two minutes to play, it still seemed like anyone’s game. That was especially true after UConn, up 58-54 with 34 seconds left, beat Stanford’s press and Evina Westbrook inexplicably threw an errant pass out of bounds, giving the ball right back to the Cardinal.

In that moment, as Haley Jones hit a jumper at the other end, UConn could have caved. But this type of challenge was nothing they hadn’t seen before.

“We’re still not complete. We’re still missing Dorka and Aubrey [Griffin],” Nika Mühl said after the game. “We just stuck together, like every other time. I don’t think there was ever a doubt in ourselves.”

Fittingly, Fudd and Williams, who combined to shoot 24 percent from the floor Friday, sealed the win for UConn with clutch free throws down the stretch. Bueckers finished with a team-high 14 points, and Nelson-Ododa and Edwards had near double-doubles to help the Huskies out-rebound Stanford 46-37, but no player’s stat line jumped off the page.

Throughout UConn’s season, when one player went down, another stepped up. On Friday night, the recipe was the same, just more resolute after months of bending but not breaking.

Auriemma won’t think his team is the better of the two taking the floor Sunday night in the national championship game. South Carolina, the No. 1-ranked squad all season long, beat the Huskies (with Bueckers) by 16 points back in November.

UConn was a different team then. They were more complete, as the injuries hadn’t set in yet, but they were also more fallible. They hadn’t yet weathered the punches and come out better for it on the other side.

That other side, now, could very well include an NCAA trophy.

“Sometimes you don’t have to have the best team to win this game,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes you just have to play the best that night, and you have to make some big plays in big moments, and you do just enough with what you have.”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.