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No. 1 Connecticut extended its consecutive Final Four streak to 13 in a regional final with the tenacity of a national championship game. The Huskies stormed back from a 10-point deficit and held defensively on the final possession to defeat reigning champion and No. 2 seed Baylor, 69-67.
Baylor's DiJonai Carrington hit four consecutive free throws and pulled the Bears within one, 68-67, with 20 seconds to play. Christyn Williams, fouled on the inbound play, missed both free throws for UConn to set up a final attempt by Baylor.
The Bears went to their hot hand in Carrington, who had 22 points off the bench, but both Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Edwards were there for UConn to stuff the shot, though it appeared to be a foul on the replay.
"This was harder than winning some of the national championship games we've won. Without question," Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said.
Paige Bueckers scored a game-high 28 points and made 3-of-7 3-point attempts. She added three rebounds and three steals, but no assists as the Bears shut them down defensively. The Huskies had only nine assists as a team and 13 turnovers, mostly from overthrowing teammates the length of the court in transition.
Aaliyah Edwards, another of UConn's phenomenal freshmen, had seven rebounds and three blocks. Nelson-Ododa had five and the team totaled 10.
Huskies take lead on 19-0 run
The Huskies stormed back into the lead with a 19-0 run after DiDi Richards, the reigning national defensive player of the year, left the game with an apparent hamstring injury. They trailed by 10, their largest deficit of the tournament, when Richards pulled up without contact on a drive to the basket. Richards, who suffered a spinal injury and was temporarily paralyzed at the start of the season, came back in, but quickly went back to the bench and didn't return.
It opened up room for Bueckers, who after a Baylor bucket started the charge on an assist by forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa. It was the team’s first assisted basket since the first quarter. Williams, who finished with 21 points and seven rebounds, and Bueckers each hit 3-pointers to head into the third quarter down by two. UConn tied it on Williams free throws and took the lead on a layup by Edwards a minute into the fourth.
Baylor committed costly turnovers while missing layups and free throws offensively. The Bears came within three, but missed a layup to cut it. UConn freshman Aaliyah Edwards got the block on the next shot attempt and Williams laid in a bucket in transition to go back up five with under a minute to play. It was just enough.
UConn, Baylor set title game pace
UConn jumped out to the early 16-4 lead and Baylor answered with its own 10-0 run. UConn built six-point leads twice in the first quarter and the Bears answered each time to come within two. The Huskies led, 26-24, at the break with transition points and their 50 combined points were the most in the first quarter in the entire tournament.
The pace slowed in the second quarter, but the block party heated up. They combined for six blocks in the second of 11 combined in the first half. They came from five different players, none larger than DiJonai Carrington's on Williams two minutes into the frame.
NaLyssa Smith collected a rebound on an ensuing attempt and found Moon Ursin to tie the game for the first time. Smith, a national player of the year candidate, finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. Ursin had 13 points, six rebounds and three assists.
Carrington later gave Baylor its first lead of the game, 34-33, out of the official TV timeout. After a layup by Olivia Nelson-Ododa and free throws by Bueckers, Carrington scored the last five points of the half to give the Bears a 39-37 advantage.
She scored 14 points with three rebounds, two steals, one assist and one block off the bench. Edwards played only eight minutes in the first half after two fouls within the first four of the game.
Baylor went up 10 on UConn late in the third for the Huskies’ largest deficit of the tournament. It started with eight straight points on baskets by Carrington, Richards and Smith. Smith finished it off with an athletic tip-in near the rim on a shot by Carrington and Ursin got in on the scoring after Nelson-Ododa made one of two free throws.
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