Connecticut women edge North Carolina State for Final Four berth

Connecticut women edge North Carolina State for Final Four berth

Bueckers finished with a game-high 27 points, including 15 after regulation, on 10-for-15 shooting to push the Huskies to a 14th consecutive Final Four. Connecticut (29-5) won its 14th straight game to secure a meeting with Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the Spokane Region and defending national champion, on Friday night in Minneapolis.

“I was thinking, ‘We have Paige Bueckers, and they don’t,’ ” Huskies senior guard Christyn Williams said. “Once she makes one, the rim is like this big. She’s going to keep making them, so we keep giving her the ball.”

Bueckers, who grew up in Minnesota, scored her most points since rejoining the lineup nine games ago following surgery in December to repair a tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear. Last season the 5-foot-11 guard became the first freshman to be named national player of the year.

A jumper from Bueckers with 3:50 to go in double overtime put the Huskies in front 82-79 after North Carolina State (32-4) pulled within a point on center Elissa Cunane’s layup. The Wolfpack did not get closer than two points for the rest of the game.

“I can’t dream a lot of the stuff that happens to me,” Bueckers said. “That’s why I thank God so much.”

Williams added 21 points, including Connecticut’s final two baskets in double overtime. The last of those, with five seconds to go, allowed the Huskies to exhale after one of the most riveting NCAA tournament games in recent memory.

Freshman guard Azzi Fudd, a two-time All-Met Player of the Year at St. John’s, had 19 points, five rebounds and two assists for Connecticut, which survived 5-for-21 shooting on three-pointers thanks in part to forcing 14 turnovers that led to 16 points. The Huskies also owned a 14-3 advantage in second-chance points and limited North Carolina to 7-for-23 shooting on three-pointers.

“It’s one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of since I’ve been at U-Conn.,” Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma said. “It was just amazing the way the 10 kids on the court are playing for their lives. Nobody wants to lose, and everybody’s making big play after big play. Nobody backed down from the moment. It’s a shame one of us had to lose, right?”

Jakia Brown-Turner (Bishop McNamara) led the Wolfpack with 20 points, and Cunane had 18 points and nine rebounds but committed five turnovers.

Brown-Turner forced a second overtime with a three-pointer from the right corner with eight-tenths of a second to play. She got a clean look after Raina Perez, the hero in the Wolfpack’s 66-63 win against Notre Dame in the round of 16, delivered a pass that Brown-Turner gathered cleanly and released almost in a single motion.

The teams had traded the lead four times late in the first overtime, with Bueckers twice scoring on pull-up jumpers, the second for a 69-68 margin, and North Carolina State getting Kai Crutchfield’s three-pointer and a layup by Kayla Jones with 1:39 to play that put the Wolfpack in front 70-69.

Connecticut countered with two more Bueckers free throws and Aaliyah Edwards’s layup off a nifty pass from Fudd for a 73-70 lead with 47 seconds to play. Fudd moments later made two free throws for a 75-72 lead, and Crutchfield was fouled on a three-point attempt with 21 seconds to go.

She made the first free throw, missed the second and converted the third, forcing the Wolfpack to foul Bueckers with 6.2 seconds remaining. The sophomore made both, and North Carolina State Coach Wes Moore called a timeout to set up Brown-Turner’s big shot.

Regulation ended after Cunane’s layup knotted the score at 61 with 59 seconds to play. The Huskies’ Olivia Nelson-Ododa clanked a pair of foul shots with 28 seconds left, and Crutchfield missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.

North Carolina State’s unenviable position of playing a de facto road game in the region final despite being the higher seed highlighted a conundrum facing the NCAA women’s tournament, which features games over the first weekend at the top four seeds and those thereafter theoretically at neutral venues.

The No. 1 seeds typically are rewarded by playing regionals closer to home, but the Wolfpack was sent to a destination less than 80 miles from Connecticut’s campus in Storrs, and the Huskies faithfully filled the arena in an atmosphere resembling Gampel Pavilion’s.

The building fell silent in the second quarter when Huskies forward Dorka Juhasz collided violently with the padded base of the goal while collecting a rebound and falling out of bounds. She clutched her arm while choking back tears before slowly rising to her feet and exiting the court for good with a wrist injury.

Her teammates were visibly shaken — Auriemma walked onto the court to offer reassurance — but the Huskies regrouped to grow their lead to as much as 10 points and went into halftime ahead 34-28.

“Hats off to U-Conn.,” Moore said. “Bueckers, we were trying to do some different things, but obviously I didn’t do a good enough job getting us in a position to maybe slow her down. She had a great performance.”

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