Arizona after toppling UConn: ‘We shocked world’

Arizona after toppling UConn: ‘We shocked world’

SAN ANTONIO — UConn went into the Final Four on Friday night as the heavy favorites, with the player of the year and a championship pedigree.

Arizona came in with an underdog coach and an underdog story, playing as if it had nothing to lose. For 40 minutes, the Wildcats played stifling defense and took freshman phenom Paige Bueckers off her game, pulling off the 69-59 stunner to advance to the program’s first national championship game appearance.

The Wildcats will face Pac-12 rival Stanford in the national championship game Sunday. It’s the first time the Pac-12 has had two teams face off in the championship game.

It was Arizona that looked like the team that had been there before, while UConn looked as if it simply could not handle the pressure or the spotlight. But in reality, it was the Wildcats’ first win against an AP No. 1 team — in their first-ever Final Four appearance, no less.

Afterward, UConn guard Christyn Williams said, “I think we came out with the wrong mentality. I thought we thought it was going to be easy, I guess, and we got flustered. They had great ball pressure. It wasn’t like anything that we’ve seen before this season. We just couldn’t get in the flow offensively.”

Arizona coach Adia Barnes and her team are probably not surprised to hear that, thriving off the doubters and the non-believers throughout the NCAA tournament. Guard Aari McDonald, who took center stage once again with a game-high 26 points, said the Wildcats use it all as motivation — especially getting left out of the NCAA’s own promotional video for the women’s Final Four.

If one scene from the game embodied that feeling, it was Barnes being shown in a huddle late in the game, using a choice word to remind her players, “Forget everybody if they don’t believe in us, because we believe in us.”

“We shocked the world tonight,” McDonald said. “Keep betting against my teammates and I, we’re going to show you wrong. We’re going to prove you wrong.”

Barnes, who played at Arizona, has turned around a Wildcats program that doesn’t have the same history or tradition as UConn under coach Geno Auriemma, in his 21st Final Four. But they took it to the Huskies from the start, and they did that behind McDonald, who was clutch not only with her scoring, but with her poise, confidence and leadership on the court.

It seemed clear from the outset that Arizona wanted to deliver a message.

“I’ve been an underdog all my life,” Barnes said. “Too small to do this, too this to do that, too inexperienced to do this. We prove it wrong every time. I don’t care. It just motivates me and my team.”

UConn simply never responded, and the Huskies have now lost in four straight Final Four semifinals. Bueckers finished with a quiet 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting in the final game of her freshman year. But even as she struggled, nobody around her stepped up and the Arizona defense made even the easy shots seem impossible.

In the first half alone, Arizona contested 15 of UConn’s 25 field goal attempts, and held the Huskies to 3-of-15 shooting on those attempts. For the game, UConn was just 6-of-31 on contested shots, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa combined to shoot 1-of-11 on layups — including 0-of-5 from Nelson-Ododa.

“I’ve said all along this year we have a very immature group, not just young,” Auriemma said. “When we’re high and when we’re on top of the world, we think everything’s great. When things don’t go our way, there’s a poutiness about us, there’s a feeling sorry for ourselves about us that you don’t win championships when you’re like that unless you get lucky.

“I’ve been down this road before. I do think that these games do tend to stay with you a little bit longer. I would say, at least on my end, I’m going to be coaching in the Final Four next year on April 2nd, whatever that date is.”

He will have Bueckers back to help him get there. Going into the game, all eyes were on her after her outstanding performance not just during the season but in the NCAA tournament — during which she scored 90 total points before Friday. Even after UConn went down by double-digits, the Huskies have been a team that can get hot at any moment.

But the shots remained elusive, and Arizona continued with its relentless pressure, playing with the confidence of a team that suggested not for a minute this was its first time playing in the Final Four.

Through three quarters, UConn had 39 points — its fewest since quarters were implemented in 2015-16 season. Still, the Huskies made a push late in the fourth quarter, narrowing the gap to 60-55 with 1:23 left, bringing the fans inside the Alamodome to their feet.

Would this be the run everybody expected to see from the usually fast-charging Huskies?

No, it would not. Now UConn, having lost in four straight Final Four semifinals, will have to wait another year to try to win its first national championship since 2016. While Arizona moves on, in an attempt to make history of its own.

“It hasn’t settled in yet,” Barnes said. “It’s amazing. This was a really hard game. We did not have any pressure. It’s a much easier situation to be us than it is UConn because I think the program is so good, you’re expected to win, and that’s hard. “For us, it’s a lot easier to play loose when there isn’t pressure. We got hot at the right time during the tournament. Everybody has done a little bit more. That’s all I can ask for. They’re playing their hearts out. They believe, I believe. We don’t care if anybody believes.”

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