MINNEAPOLIS — With 11 seconds left and UConn clinging to a two-point lead, senior guard Christyn Williams stepped up to the free throw line. The ref tossed the ball to Williams, and the lefty took her customary dribble, bent her knees and floated the ball toward the bucket. It dropped through the net. Same with the second one.
The foul shots gave UConn a four-point lead and all but sealed the Huskies’ 63-58 victory, sending them to the national championship game for the first time since 2016. For four consecutive NCAA tournaments, UConn had lost in the Final Four. But on this fifth trip — the final one for this senior class that had never played in a national championship game — Evina Westbrook, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Williams were determined not to lose.
“You can’t come here as a senior, and hope that someone else wins it for you,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, whose Huskies will play No. 1 overall seed South Carolina on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) for the NCAA title.
Westbrook ignited the Huskies early, coming off the bench in the second quarter to replace Aaliyah Edwards, who had just picked up her second foul.
With Dorka Juhasz out with a fractured wrist, Westbrook was the next player up in the post. After missing her first two shots, Westbrook spotted up for a corner 3 and drilled it. She made three of four 3-pointers in the first half as the Huskies had a one-point lead at the break.
“Somehow, some way, when she gets into big games, she finds a way to knock in two or three of them,” Auriemma said. “And it happens every time we need (her) to. I would say she was probably the most valuable player in the game (Friday).”
If Westbrook set the tone in the second quarter, Nelson-Ododa and Williams shouldered that burden in the fourth — once they got back on the court. They spent the last few minutes of the third on the bench.
“I think they started to sense like, ‘That’s it. I’m never getting back in,'” Auriemma said. “And when they came back in, it was like different people.”
Nelson-Ododa started the quarter with an old-fashioned three-point play and two additional free throws. On UConn’s next possession, Williams hit a 3-point shot to extend the Huskies’ lead to six points. She had struggled offensively for much of the game, and finished just 3-for-13 from the field for the night, but that shot fired up the Huskies and swung the momentum.
“It’s the last year,” sophomore guard Nika Muhl said. “They just want to win and we’re there to follow them.”
This senior class, alongside the entire UConn squad, has played through adversity most of the season. The five regular-season losses are the most for the program since the 2004-05 season. The Huskies’ loss to Villanova was the program’s first conference loss since 2013. And the loss to Georgia Tech — the first game played after sophomore guard Paige Bueckers went down with a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus — snapped UConn’s 239-game winning streak against unranked opponents.
Auriemma did not shy away from challenging his upper classmen.
After UConn lost to Georgia Tech, a dejected Auriemma joined the news conference and gave a damning assessment of the state of the Huskies.
“I’ve usually been pretty good over the years at making players better,” Auriemma said. “We get really good players coming out of high school, but they get better and better and better every year. And right now, that’s not happening.”
UConn’s Paige Bueckers lobs it to Olivia Nelson-Ododa for a tough bucket plus the foul.
This class led through the injuries and illnesses affecting UConn throughout the year. In addition to Bueckers’ knee injury, Muhl and freshman Azzi Fudd both missed time with foot injuries. Freshman Caroline Ducharme, Nelson-Ododa and Williams all missed games, too. And Juhasz was lost to injury Monday.
As UConn enters the championship game, a setting where Auriemma holds an 11-0 record, those troubles feel further from view. If the senior class has anything to say about it, they’ve got the juice to come through when it matters most.
“They did exactly what I expected them to do every night,” Auriemma said. “Hope they got one more night in them.”