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‘Can’t make this up’: Short-handed Huskies prevail

PORTLAND, Ore. — Earlier this season, 11-time national champion coach Geno Auriemma didn’t think his UConn Huskies stood much of a shot at making a deep March run. The team had lost multiple key players — six by season’s end — for the year due to injury. By Dec. 3, they already had dropped three contests in nonconference play.

Saturday’s Sweet 16 matchup against 7-seed Duke was far from aesthetically pleasing, but the Huskies did enough to come through with a 53-45 win that punched their ticket to the Elite Eight, surpassing last year’s shocking Sweet 16 exit as well as Auriemma’s previous expectations.

“Childbirth is a miracle,” Auriemma said after the win. “[I thought earlier this season] us getting to the Sweet 16 would be a miracle. And now here we are, we’re in the final eight. Seriously, you can’t make this s— up.”

UConn’s regional final appearance marks the program’s 28th overall, tying the record held by Tennessee.

The No. 3 seed Huskies will face the top-seeded USC Trojans on Monday at 9 p.m. ET for a Final Four spot in Cleveland.

UConn mostly dominated Saturday’s defensive slog, leading for nearly 37 minutes, although dominate is a relative term. The Huskies’ 53 points and Duke’s 45 are tied for second-fewest scored in a NCAA tournament game in their respective programs’ histories. At halftime, UConn led 23-13.

“Duke’s a terrific defensive team,” Auriemma said. “They do a tremendous job of taking away some of your strengths and making you make plays that are not necessarily scripted. You have to make great reads. And it was really hard in the beginning because you felt like they have 13 points at halftime, and I felt like we should have 30.

“But scoring was not going to be easy tonight at both ends. They weren’t going to have an easy time scoring against us, and we weren’t going to have an easy time scoring against them.”

But 2021 national player of the year Paige Bueckers shined for UConn, as she has all postseason, finishing with 24 points. It was the sixth straight game she has managed at least 20 points, which is tied for the longest streak of her career. She added five rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

Bueckers has a chance to lead the Huskies to the Final Four during each of the three seasons she has been active for the Huskies. Last year, with Bueckers sidelined due to an ACL injury, UConn’s campaign ended when it was upset by Ohio State in the Sweet 16, snapping the program’s streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances.

Things got interesting in the fourth quarter on Saturday when Duke twice cut a 20-point advantage the Huskies achieved late in the third to five points in the final two minutes.

“We kind of took a deep breath, we were exercising, and then we decided to have a cigarette,” Auriemma explained, “and then we didn’t feel like exercising anymore.”

After the Blue Devils made their run, UConn made just enough plays to keep them at an arm’s length, with forward Aaliyah Edwards (then playing with four fouls) hitting a jumper with just over a minute left, Bueckers draining key free throws and both coming up with big defensive rebounds. Edwards and freshman guard KK Arnold each finished with 12 points for UConn.

“You don’t know what the path is going to look like, wherever you’re going,” Auriemma said on the tournament. “You just have to have the kind of kids that can make the play that has to be made when it has to be made, and we’ve done that the last two games.”

For as much as Auriemma might have been displeased that his team allowed the Blue Devils to get back in the game, UConn still managed to hold Duke to 18-for-55 shooting (4-for-19 from 3) and forced 23 turnovers on the night. Reigan Richardson, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer during the tournament, was held to just 5-for-15 from the field, and freshman Oluchi Okananwa led Duke in scoring with 15 points off the bench.

“We were out of sorts and out of rhythm on the offensive end and just weren’t able to, until late, get enough points on the board,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

UConn has leaned on a seven-player rotation most of this calendar year due to injuries and played only six on Saturday. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Huskies as the preseason No. 2 team, but since the middle of November, they lost Azzi Fudd, Aubrey Griffin, Caroline Ducharme and two others for the season due to injuries. With Fudd and Ducharme out within the first month of the campaign, they fell to 4-3 when Texas topped them on Dec. 3.

“I thought the way we were playing, the way our mojo was, the way the vibe on our team was, it was very down,” Auriemma said.

The game after losing to the Longhorns, Auriemma changed the starting lineup to feature three point guards in Bueckers, Nika Muhl and Arnold, alongside another freshman guard in Ashlynn Shade. With the four-guard lineup, UConn started to put the pieces together, compiling a lengthy winning streak and comfortably going undefeated across Big East regular-season and tournament play.

“I think that 13-game winning streak made us feel like, ‘All right, if we can keep improving on this, I think we got something here,'” Auriemma said.

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