Tough night, but a good season for 'immature' Huskies
There is good reason UConn women's basketball is viewed through the prism of perpetual, gargantuan favorite. A conga line of 40-point wins, 13 straight Final Fours and 11 national championships tends to write a rather declarative narrative.
UConn's history, however, made this season's exit perhaps harder to understand. To some, that name means total domination now and forever. Except that the ingredients that went into the goulash of 2021 are far different than the old days. And much of it showed Friday, the night the Huskies were supposed to raze Arizona and instead watched the Wildcats rise like a phoenix.
The UConn Huskies jogged dejectedly off the floor at the Alamodome in the wake of their 69-59 loss in the national semifinals. The Huskies in question: seven freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors and no seniors. The Huskies in question: 45 percent of their points came from freshmen.
If you know sports, you know this much: freshmen do dumb things. Freshmen are inconsistent and untrustworthy. Even if they are talented. Heck, even if they are otherworldly, like Paige Bueckers. Reliance on them, especially in games like this, games with the nation watching, games with so much finality attached, are a roll of the dice.
This is not to say that Bueckers (5-for-13 shooting) and classmate Aaliyah Edwards (eight points, six rebounds) were terrible. They were not. They just weren't as good as they needed to be. And they needed to be good. Great, actually. Is that fair? Of course not. But it was the reality of 2021. The older players were incapable of carrying UConn not just on Friday, but for most of the season, save perhaps a night when the Huskies dined on a Big East bowser.
Look at the numbers. Olivia Nelson Ododa, a junior with far more experience than the precocious freshmen, went 0-for-7 with one point. Junior Evina Westbrook was decent, 10 points. Christyn Williams scored 20, but was victimized by a phantom fifth foul. Bottom line: a combined 31 points among three veteran players isn't good enough.
"Without the freshmen, we wouldn't be here," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Each and every time we were together, they learned a lot and contributed a lot. Tonight, you could see their inexperience show. This was not one of Aaliyah's better games, but she got better as the game went on. Nika (Muhl) hasn't played in a while. Paige is another example that you're only as good as your teammates. Only as good as the team around you.
"(Arizona senior) Aari (McDonald) was amazing tonight. But she got a lot of support. Everyone else made plays when they had to make them. As good as Paige was and carried the team through most of the season, that's not how you win championships. With one player having to do everything. Paige needs to get a lot better. ... I don't mean just on the court either."
Auriemma used the word "immature" after the game to describe this team. They did immature things to augment all the missed layups. Example: with 1:50 left and UConn down seven — and not needing to foul — Edwards hacked McDonald and sent her to the line. That's not a winning play. Lest we forget the closing seconds of Monday's win over Baylor, Westbrook got called for a carry and Williams missed three free throws. Not winning plays.
Williams said Friday she thought UConn (a 13-point favorite) might have underestimated Arizona.
"I've said all along to those who follow us that this is a very immature group," Auriemma said. "Not just young, but very immature. When we're high and we're on top of the world we think we're great. When things don't go our way there's a poutiness about us. You don't win championships like that unless you get lucky. If (UConn underestimated Arizona) that's bad coaching by us and a sign of immaturity by our team. We need to grow up if we expect to get back here in the future."
Auriemma said his team had not faced the level of stifling defense they'd seen in the last two games. Part of that is related to the COVID season, relegating UConn mostly to the hideous Big East, whose competition level was barely better than the dreaded American. There will be more tests next regular season.
"We have a lot of guys that haven't been in this position before," Williams said. "I'm proud we made it this far. Obviously, it sucks we lost in the Final Four, but we came a long way this season. ... Everybody's going to be back and we're going to build on what we did this season. I think we can be a lot better."
So does the coach.
"We've lost 10 games in the Final Four over the years. Each of them were impactful in some way or another," Auriemma said. "But the ones we've lost where we weren't up to the moment — everyone told me 'hey listen, this year is just a setup. This is building block.' It's great to say that, but not so great today when we're sitting here this far away from the championship game. These games do tend to stay with you a little bit longer.
"I would say that at least on my end. I'm going to be coaching in the Final Four next year. ... I believe that what we learned this year, through all the ups and downs, will really benefit us the next couple of years. I remember saying that in 2008. Maya Moore was a freshman and we lost to Stanford. We were undefeated the next three seasons. I don't think that's gonna happen, but we'll back here sooner rather than later."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro