After facing so much scrutiny throughout their careers, seniors Evina Westbrook, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams put their stamp on a 63-58 semifinal victory for the No. 2 seed UConn Huskies over the defending champion and No. 1 seed Stanford Cardinal Friday night at Target Center in Minneapolis.
UConn opened the fourth on an 8-2 run to build a 47-39 lead. It started with a tough 3-point play from Nelson-Ododa and then Williams knocked down a big three after doing the same in the third. Westbrook had made three triples in the second, so the entire big three of seniors (minus Dorka Juhasz who was out with her wrist injury) was stepping up.
After Stanford cut it back to six, it was the Minnesota kid’s turn to do something heroic: Paige Bueckers made a steal at midcourt and turned it into a fast break layup. With 5:39 remaining at that point, things weren’t looking good for Stanford.
WIth 1:04 remaining, Bueckers’ sophomore classmate Aaliyah Edwards drew a charge on last year’s Final Four most outstanding player Haley Jones, giving the Huskies the ball back up 54-48. Lacie Hull made a three to cut Stanford’s deficit to three with 54 ticks left, but Edwards answered with a wide-open layup on the other end.
The Cardinal would cut it to two on a Jones layup and again on a Cameron Brink make inside, but Ashten Prechtel, a clutch postseason performer, missed a three with seven seconds left, keeping it a two-possession game.
Bueckers finished with 14 points, five assists and two steals, while Westbrook (12 points, six boards) and Nelson-Ododa (eight points, 10 boards) were key in multiple categories as well. Williams notched 10 points and they were all huge, including a 2-of-2 trip to the line with 11 seconds left.
Stanford’s stars, Jones (20 points, 11 rebounds, three assists) and Brink (15 points, seven rebounds, three steals, two blocks), both played well and Brink stayed out of the foul trouble that usually haunts her until late.
It was a close game throughout, with UConn leading for most of it. Prechtel made a three that put Stanford up 31-30 at the 6:58 mark of the third. Her getting hot was bad news for the Huskies, but Bueckers answered with a mid-range make 17 seconds later. Prechtel missed two looks at three later in the third and Williams knocked down a big trey to help the Huskies lead 39-37 entering the fourth.
Westbrook, a 29.7-percent 3-point shooter with 35 makes coming in, highlighted the second with her three treys. After the third of those, UConn took its largest lead of the first half at 25-19. However, Fran Belibi answered with a layup, Hannah Jump made a three and then Jones made a layup to give Stanford its first lead of the game at 26-25. A great offensive rebound and layup by Nika Mühl switched the lead back in UConn’s favor going into halftime.
In an uneventful first quarter, Williams and Bueckers opened with the same mid-range make from a couple steps behind the free throw line to give the Huskies a 4-0 lead. Azzi Fudd tossed in four points in the remainder of the frame and UConn entered the second up 12-9.
The Huskies advance to face the No. 1 overall seed South Carolina Gamecocks in the final. These were the top two teams in the country in the preseason. South Carolina won by 16 when they met on a neutral site on Nov. 22, but has shown vulnerability since then, losing to non-tournament team Missouri and a team that lost in the first round in Kentucky. So UConn will have a chance to make the rematch much closer. If you think it will end on a buzzer-bearer you can make the bet at +5000 on DraftKings.