Arizona, the disruptive and defensive-minded newcomer to the Final Four, ousted Connecticut, the most decorated program in women’s college basketball, from the N.C.A.A. tournament on Friday.
The upset, 69-59, by the third-seeded Wildcats vaulted them into Sunday evening’s championship game against Stanford, the tournament’s top seed over all.
Aari McDonald, the senior guard whose approaches to the basket at the Alamodome in San Antonio stirred Arizona fans to their feet on one possession after the next, had 26 points and made four of nine 3-point tries.
But it was the Wildcats’ defense that was so sterling, holding the No. 1-seeded Huskies to their lowest score of the season.
Connecticut, in fact, led not even once in Friday’s national semifinal. Instead, the sport’s staggered power made just 36 percent of its shots. It also surrendered a dozen points on turnovers in the first half alone. Paige Bueckers, whose electrifying play as a freshman propelled UConn to a 28-1 record entering Friday’s game, recorded 18 points despite the pressure of Arizona’s swarming defenders, led by McDonald. Christyn Williams, who had a team-best 20 points, fouled out with nearly four minutes to play.
Arizona, now 21-5, has roared through the national tournament after losing in the semifinals of the Pac-12 competition last month. Last weekend, it eased past Texas A&M, a No. 2 seed, 74-59.
Arizona, playing in its first Final Four, bounces UConn, 69-59.
Aari McDonald starred for the Wildcats with 26 points.
Aari McDonald and the No. 3 seed Arizona Wildcats are 10 minutes away from going to the national championship game.
The Wildcats defense has held the Huskies to just 33 percent shooting behind an incredible defensive effort, leading the No. 1 seed UConn, 48-39. The Huskies have made just 13 shots, shooting 33.3 percent.
Arizona went on a 7-0 run in the third quarter before Paige Bueckers made her third shot of the quarter with less than four minutes left. She has 13 points in the game after posting just five points before the half.
McDonald, a bit behind her 32-point per game pace over her last two contests, has 17 points, but the cast around her has produced as well. Sam Thomas has 8 points and Cate Reese has 9.
Christyn Williams leads the Huskies with 15 points. UConn’s 14-point deficit earlier in the quarter is the most the Huskies have trailed by all tournament.
Heading into the game, the Huskies had only trailed for 13 minutes, 22 seconds the entire time in San Antonio. They have trailed for 29 minutes, 18 seconds through three quarters against Arizona.
In ESPN’s bracket challenge for the women’s tournament, 30 percent of entries selected UConn as the national champion. The Huskies are down by 9 after three quarters. Only 1 percent of brackets picked Arizona (the Wildcats were less popular than all the other teams seeded 1-3).
Arizona fans trekked to San Antonio support their program’s first Final Four appearance. They have been chanting “U of A” and “defense” and jumping to their feet whenever Aari McDonald approaches the basket. And for good reason — Arizona leads top-seeded UConn, 41-31, in the middle of the third quarter. UConn cheers are almost non-existent.
No. 3 seed Arizona backed up its first quarter run with a strong second, holding onto a lead over No. 1 seed UConn, 32-22 at halftime.
Aari McDonald kept up her torrid run as the tournament’s leading scorer, posting 15 points in the first half. Opposite her, UConn star freshman Paige Bueckers has produced 5 points, all in the first quarter, and 4 rebounds.
McDonald extended her longest active streak of scoring at least 10 points to 92 games. Sam Thomas has 8 points with 3 rebounds, but McDonald has carried the game, shooting at will and playing with tremendous confidence.
McDonald said during a halftime television interview that she practices by taking “hundreds and thousands” of shots. “It’s paying off and I’m loving it,” she said.
The Wildcats are shooting 38 percent, but perhaps most importantly have held the high-scoring Huskies to just 32 percent from the floor. UConn, which has lost just one game all season, has only attempted three shots from 3-point range, and hit just one, while the Wildcats hit six 3-pointers in the first half. The Huskies made just eight shots from the floor overall.
“I would describe our defense as suffocating and stingy,” McDonald said.
South Carolina is not looking to dwell on a missed call — publicly, at least.
With less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter and Stanford holding a 3-point lead, South Carolina’s Zia Cooke was dribbling just outside the 3-point line when Lexie Hull’s right foot made contact with the ball. No official blew a whistle, and just seven seconds later, Stanford’s Cameron Brink was making a layup.
“It hit her foot,” Cooke said after the game. “They didn’t call a jump ball. That was it.”
Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s coach, noted the challenges of officiating.
“They’ve got a tough job,” she said. “There are dreams on the line. Everybody wants to compete for a national championship. I saw the kicked ball. I didn’t make a big deal out of it, but I don’t know what you want me to say. I can’t say much about it besides they’ve got a tough job.”
Speaking to reporters by videoconference after the game, Staley started a modest shift toward thinking about next season, particularly given how close the Gamecocks came to winning at the buzzer.
“The margin of error is that small — it’s that small to competing for a national championship, winning a national championship, and it won’t be our last time being in this situation,” she said. “Next year, we’ve just got to practice with margin of error in mind.”
No. 3 seed Arizona took a 16-10 lead over No. 1 seed UConn heading into the second quarter of Friday’s Final Four contest, but UConn had a big bright side to celebrate.
Huskies guard Nika Muhl returned for her first action since getting injured in the first round against High Point. She checked into the game with just under three minutes left in the quarter.
Muhl, who has been dealing with her second ankle sprain of the season, was on crutches after she was injured in the first round. She had been day-to-day until Friday night. She played three minutes in the first, not generating any shots or getting on the score sheet after one quarter.
Led by Aari McDonald, who is averaging 32 points over her last two games, the Wildcats went on a 6-0 run early. She finished the quarter with 8 points, going 3-for-6 from the floor.
UConn, however, held Arizona down late in the frame with four consecutive scoreless minutes for the Wildcats. Arizona responded late, though, behind some late baskets from Sam Thomas.
UConn’s Paige Bueckers finished the quarter with 5 points and 3 rebounds.
So far the Wildcats are getting good looks against UConn, with three 3-point buckets in the first five minutes. Arizona leads, 9-5.
The Huskies may be led by the first freshman to win Associated Press Player of the Year, Paige Bueckers, and lack a single senior in the starting lineup. But that doesn’t mean that their veterans haven’t played crucial roles in pushing the dynasty back to the semifinals for the 13th time.
The team’s three juniors, guards Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook and forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa, have been instrumental throughout Connecticut’s run so far. Williams has gotten much needed baskets in the Huskies’ last two wins, flaunting her ability to make tough shots around the goal as well as her range from behind the 3-point line as she takes on some of the toughest defensive assignments — the typically sharpshooting Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark was unable to find her rhythm because of Williams’s pressure.
“I’ve had my ups and downs during my time here at UConn, everybody knows it,” Williams said after her 27 point game against Iowa. “It just feels really good to be able to play this basketball game as well as I did today, just to show the Christyn Williams I am, because I am a complete player and I feel people have forgotten that.”
Also important to the Huskies’ defense is Evina Westbrook, who is in her first season playing with the Huskies. She transferred from longtime Connecticut rival Tennessee, which declined to grant her immediate eligibility after she transferred in 2019. The 6-foot redshirt junior has been all over the court through the deepest tournament run of her career, nearly getting a triple-double in the round of 16.
Nelson-Ododa joined UConn with nearly as much media buzz as Bueckers, simply because of the 6-foot-4 player’s widely-circulated perfect score at the Powerade Jam Fest, an annual dunk contest for top high school players. She hasn’t jammed the ball yet in college, but has added another unlikely skill, especially for a player of her size: Nelson-Ododa has 11 assists in her last two games. Whether the Huskies can move on to the national championship game might come down to her ability to help her team find open looks.
Stanford’s dramatic win over South Carolina to go to the national championship game also came with a record.
Haley Jones, who finished with a Cardinal-leading 24 points, hit a jumper in the third quarter to give Stanford its 55th 3-pointer over the course of the tournament, break the previous record of 54 held by UConn in 2015. Stanford finished the game with 56 3-pointers for the tournament through five games.
Stanford hit five 3-pointers in the first three quarters to break the record spanning their five games of action in San Antonio. The Cardinal have been carried by their 3-point shooting all season, hitting 38.3 percent, seventh best in the nation before Friday night.
It wasn’t the most efficient shooting night for the Cardinal overall at 42 percent, but they hit 63 percent on 3-pointers, going 5-for-8. Jones made two of those, before her game-winning 2.
“Haley’s been working really hard,” said Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer. “She’s really made a step up and she knows it. She’s not a freshman or a sophomore anymore, she’s a leader out there and the confidence she plays with, that was a real big shot for her.
“We credit their defense, they made it tough on people,” VanDerveer continued. “Thankfully, Haley was awesome.”
Stanford and South Carolina also set a Final Four record with 17 combined blocks, including 12 by the Cardinal.
The top-seeded Cardinal are going to the national championship for the first time since 2010 after beating their fellow No. 1 seed Gamecocks, 66-65. The closely fought game came to an end on two missed shots by South Carolina on the final possession after getting a steal with less than seven seconds left.
After the Gamecocks got out to a hot start, leading the Cardinal by as many as 9 points in the first quarter, Stanford took control, leading until late in the third. They threw as much size as they could muster at South Carolina, using the length of players like Lexie Hull, who wound up with 18 points and 13 rebounds, and 6-foot-5 Ashten Prechtel to neutralize the Gamecocks’ smaller lineup.
But neither side gave up much in the relatively low-scoring game. Every time South Carolina came close, or even tied the Cardinal, Stanford pulled away — though not enough to feel comfortable. With four minutes left, it was a 4-point game; with a minute and a half left, Stanford had stretched to a 5-point lead thanks to a 3-pointer from 6-foot-4 Cameron Brink.
Then Destanni Henderson hit a 3-pointer late in the shot clock to give South Carolina a 1-point lead with 38.8 seconds left; and Haley Jones hit a 2-point shot to reclaim it.
Stanford edges South Carolina, 66-65, to reach the championship game.
The Cardinal held off the Gamecocks on a wild finish, with South Carolina missing two potential shots at the end that could have delivered the win.
Fans are on their feet for the last minute of this game, which hasn’t had more than 5 points of separation in the fourth quarter. Stanford leads, 64-62.
South Carolina tied the game early in the fourth quarter, but just as quickly its star center Aliyah Boston picked up her fourth foul. Stanford leads, 56-52.
Basketball is often a game of runs, and this one sure has been as Stanford leads South Carolina, 52-49, going into the fourth quarter.
In the third, it was South Carolina’s turn to go off again, at least to start.
Zia Cooke got hot from the 3-point arc, ending the third with 23 total points and shooting 5-for-7 on 3s, leading the Gamecocks on a 7-0 run. South Carolina isn’t a 3-point heavy team, usually tallying about four per game.
Despite a strong Stanford defensive performance holding the Gamecocks to 42 percent shooting, they haven’t had an answer for Cooke.
On the other end, Haley Jones has carried the Cardinal offense with 20 points, including 7 consecutive for her team at one point. She is 9 for 11 from the floor.
The Gamecocks, for their streakiness, haven’t been able to fully penetrate the Stanford depth despite huge showings from Cooke and Aliyah Boston, who has added 9 points, 11 rebounds and a game-high 5 blocks.
After losing a lead in the first quarter, South Carolina has tightened up the score thanks in large part to three third quarter 3-point shots from Zia Cooke. Though the Gamecocks briefly tied the game, Stanford is still ahead, 45-43.
Stanford built up its run that started late in the first quarter to 11-0, holding South Carolina off the scoreboard for three minutes in the second period to take a 31-25 halftime lead.
The Gamecocks missed 10 consecutive shots after opening the game at 5-for-7. Even when they inched back, Stanford would find a way to pull further ahead, like when Lacie Hull hit a 3-pointer to give the Cardinal a 5-point lead.
Zia Cooke finally scored midway through the quarter; she leads South Carolina with 12 points.
From there, South Carolina began to score again.
Aliyah Boston made a pair of key blocks to stop Stanford’s run. She has four blocks along with nine rebounds.
Ashten Prechtel’s late 3-pointer helped Stanford keep its advantage.
The Cardinal’s Haley Jones finished the half with 9 points, all coming in the first quarter.
Final Four preparations took a detour for two coaches on Wednesday: Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley spent more than an hour on a videoconference with N.C.A.A. executives about the management of their sport and its 2021 tournament.
The 70-minute session, organized by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and viewed by The New York Times, came together after the sustained outcry over differences between this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments. The N.C.A.A. president, Mark Emmert, and two top basketball executives apologized again for serial deficiencies at the women’s tournament.
But Staley expressed concerns about Emmert’s plan to have a law firm conduct a review of inequities at N.C.A.A. championship events.
“Whoever is paying the piper, more than likely they’re going to give you what you want to hear,” said Staley, who asked Emmert whether someone independent of coaches or the N.C.A.A. could be asked to investigate.
Emmert asserted that the association had no previous history with the firm it had retained for the review, but he acknowledged the potential issue.
“I understand there’s both the reality and the perception. I have a high level of confidence in their independence in reality, but I also understand that there’s this perceptional issue out there and that’s what you’re asking about.”
Emmert said he would “continue to look at it and see what we can do to make sure everybody knows that this is being looked at with completely wide-open eyes and without biases.”
Auriemma said he was concerned about how women’s sports programs were treated on campuses nationwide. And he wondered aloud whether women’s basketball should operate somewhat separately.
“I hate to say this because I hate to give those people any credit, but college football coaches, they decided ‘we’re not dealing with this’ and they’ve gone completely rogue and they’re uncontrollable,” Auriemma said with a light chuckle. “They’re a runaway train and God bless you for trying to hold onto that operation. But maybe that’s what has to happen in women’s basketball — maybe women’s basketball’s got to separate itself from the other women’s sports. But then that would be unfair because we’d be leaving a lot of people behind who need our help.”
Auriemma’s thoughts should not be seen as a sign of an imminent overhaul of the sport: The question of whether women’s sports should operate separately from the N.C.A.A., in whole or in part, has now been a subject of debate for more than four decades. But plenty of coaches and executives have been publicly and privately musing these last few weeks over how their women’s basketball could be better run.
South Carolina opened with an early 11-2 run, but Stanford stormed back to make it 15-15 going into the second quarter.
Destanni Henderson grabbed the first points with two free throws early, and then her Gamecocks went on a 6-0 run, also powered by 6 points from Zia Cooke and three rebounds from Aliyah Boston.
The Cardinal before they ripped off a 9-0 run at the end of the quarter, putting the Gamecocks in a scoring drought of just over four minutes in the process. Haley Jones finished the quarter with 9 points.
Stanford opened shooting 43 percent, while the Gamecocks shot 38 percent in the first quarter.
Cameron Brink, normally a starter and strong post presence for Stanford, pulled a hamstring in the Cardinal’s game against Louisville and was going in and out in the first quarter of the semifinals. Her mother said on Wednesday that trainers told her hamstring injuries are finicky and they were hoping to rest her when possible.
Good reminder here that Haley Jones was the No. 1 recruit in last year’s freshman class. She has 9 of Stanford’s 13 points.
The bands might not be present, but they’re playing the South Carolina fight song at the Alamodome after the Gamecocks forced four Stanford turnovers in the first five minutes. South Carolina leads, 15-6, with a little more than four minutes left in the first quarter.
Parents of Stanford women’s basketball team are excited to see them play. They are just as excited for this N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament to finish.
“As soon as the game is over and she gets on the bus and goes to the hotel, we’ll be right behind the bus,” Mike Williams, the father of senior guard Kiana Williams, said in an interview this week.
The team spent nine weeks of its season away from its Northern California campus, at points playing “home games” in a beach town about 45 miles away, while the county where the university is in prohibited contact sports. Parents were unable to come into contact with their children or see them play from the stands for much of the season.
“You forget what it is like to make eye contact with her as she’s coming off the court going into the locker room,” Michelle Bain-Brink, the mother of freshman forward Cameron Brink, said.
Bain-Brink had not seen her daughter play for the Cardinal until the Pac-12 tournament, which Stanford won, last month in Las Vegas.
Back in the stands, the 300-person block of Stanford’s family and friends are taking their job of cheering very seriously, opening up the national semifinal game between Stanford and South Carolina with cheers of “Let’s go Stanford.”
It is Stanford’s second competition today — just a few hours before coming to the Alamodome, the Cardinal crowned its table tennis tournament champion.
The women’s Final Four games will be broadcast on ESPN and can be streamed on the ESPN app. Here is a rundown of the schedule:
Stanford vs. South Carolina, 6 p.m. Eastern
UConn vs. Arizona, 9:30 p.m. Eastern
Final, 6 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.
Many of the usual Final Four festivities and events aren’t taking place this year in San Antonio because of the coronavirus pandemic. In spite of that, the city is still hosting plenty of the best women’s basketball players in the nation — even beyond those competing for an N.C.A.A. title.
U.S.A. Basketball scheduled its last 3×3 and U.S. national team camps before the W.N.B.A. season begins in May to coincide with the final weekend of N.C.A.A. tournament competition in San Antonio. Plenty of the universities still competing for the college championship have esteemed alumni who spent the past few days practicing ahead of the Tokyo Olympics later this year.
Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Stefanie Dolson and Tina Charles played for UConn. South Carolina had A’ja Wilson Nneka Ogwumike went to Stanford. South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is also the Coach of the U.S. national team, but she has left training camp to her assistants while she focuses on leading the Gamecocks deeper in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Some of the players are likely to remain on hand to cheer on their teams — and to scope out their future competition. “Obviously her quickness is her biggest asset, her ability to go anywhere at any time,” Bird said this week of Arizona senior Aari McDonald, a possible top-10 pick in the upcoming W.N.B.A. draft. “Her kind of game translates to the W.N.B.A. well so it will be fun to watch her go against Connecticut.”