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Heartbroken UConn left to lament controversy, setbacks despite exceeding outsized expectations

In Sports
April 06, 2024

CLEVELAND — An earthquake shook New Jersey. A total solar eclipse is coming. And Connecticut’s loss in the Final Four isn’t a letdown. It’s an over-accomplishment.

What a wild world we’re living in.

UConn came one play away from reaching the national championship game, which in the years of Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore or Breanna Stewart would be a bitter disappointment to fans used to seeing trophies on trophies in Storrs. Instead, the 71-69 loss to Iowa in the Final Four was a more celebratory affair on what this short-handed team overcame not only this season, but the last few years.

“This is the first time that we’ve come here where it feels like we’re the visitors, where it feels like we’re actually the underdogs and no one expects us to win,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “And we did talk about getting here was the hardest part, and you appreciate that so much.”

UConn was expected to be in the national title game in the preseason when its starting roster included former Naismith winner Paige Bueckers back from an ACL tear, shooter and Naismith contender Azzi Fudd healthy, All-American forward Aaliyah Edwards consistent and point guard Nika Muhl with a fresh program assists records.

But then injuries struck again, and six players spent the Final Four game on the bench in sweats. That included Fudd, who missed all but two games. Only six players were available for much of the season.

UConn's Paige Bueckers speaks with the media after losing to the Iowa Hawkeyes on Friday. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

UConn’s Paige Bueckers speaks with the media after losing to the Iowa Hawkeyes on Friday. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Somehow — maybe because this is UConn, after all — the No. 3 seed Huskies sped through the Big East and upset top-seeded USC in the Portland 3 regional to reach yet another Final Four after their 14-year streak snapped last year.

“This season meant everything to us, against all odds,” Bueckers said. “Nobody thought we would be here. All people posted about us was the worst ranking in 20 years, the worst start in 20 years, the worst seeding in the tournament in 20 years. And here we are at the Final Four.”

Not only were they there, they were a shot attempt away. An offensive foul call on Edwards for a moving screen prevented them from running a final play

“You can look at one play and say, ‘Oh, that killed us or that hurt us,’” Bueckers said. “But we should have done a better job — I should have done a better job of making sure we didn’t leave the game up to chance like that and leave the game up to one bad call going our way and that deciding it.

“Yeah, maybe that was a tough call for us, but I feel like I could have done a better job preventing that from even happening.”

Auriemma took a different approach.

“There’s probably an illegal screen call that you could make on every single possession,” he said. “I just know there were three or four of them called on us and I don’t think there were any called on them. So I guess we just gotta get better on not setting illegal screens.”

UConn shot poorly in the second quarter to allow Iowa back into it despite turning the Hawkeyes over 16 times and junking up their usual free-flowing offense. But a 3-pointer by Nika Muhl off an Iowa turnover cut the deficit to one with 40 seconds left and Iowa committed another turnover while trying to run the clock down and score. It set up the illegal screen call.

Bueckers and the two departing seniors who have endured the brunt of three seasons full of injuries were emotional on the dais describing their time at UConn and making it to such a stage despite the obstacles.

UConn's Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl speak with the media on Friday after their loss to Iowa. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl speak with the media on Friday after their loss to Iowa. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Edwards finished her final UConn game with 17 points and eight rebounds.

“I’m going to leave this game with being proud of the team and proud of how we, game in, game out, just continued to believe in each other and lean on one another,” said Edwards, who is a likely first-round WNBA Draft pick on April 15. “And unfortunately we just didn’t leave this game with a W, but we fought hard up until the very end.”

Muhl’s final game was a strong defensive showing against Clark. She had nine points, seven assists and five rebounds.

“You saw the epitome of what Nika is,” Bueckers said. “A tenacious defender, does everything this team needs her to do, controls the offense, plays with so much heart and energy, and plays with her whole soul.”

Bueckers had 17 and freshman KK Arnold, who was in foul trouble, scored 14. Because of its lack of depth, UConn has relied all season on high-scoring nights from Bueckers and Edwards combined with at least one other player. It looked early like it might be Muhl. Or it could have been Arnold if not for foul trouble. Ashlynn Shade, the other freshman starter, has had significant performances in the run and could have stepped up.

Defensively, UConn was right there, holding Iowa to 20 points below its average. It didn’t have enough offense to do the job. It ultimately ran out of battery on a postseason already lacking a full charge.

“We might not win a national championship, but we’re right there when it’s usually being decided,” Auriemma said. “And that’s all that matters.”

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