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UConn women’s basketball heads to Final Four after campus sendoff in search of national title No. 12 – CT Insider

UConn women’s basketball team players do the famous call and response “UCONN…Huskies” chant with fellow students and fans as they exit Gampel Pavilion for their trip to the Final Four in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
A massive crowd of students and fans sees off the UConn Women’s basketball team outside Gampel Pavilion for their trip to the Final Four in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
Lead out by senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, center, UCONN women’s basketball team players greet fellow students and fans with high fives and smiles as they exit Gampel Pavilion for their trip to the Final Four in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
UCONN student Christina Beaulieu smiles as she poses for a selfie with school mascot while waiting to cheer on the women’s basketball team for their trip to the Final Four in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
UCONN students Jenna Waggoner, of Manchester, and Matthew Cherian, of Bedford, NH, arrive to cheer on the women’s basketball team for their trip to the Final Four on the school’s campus in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
UCONN women’s basketball team players do the famous call and response “UCONN…Huskies” chant with fellow students and fans as they exit Gampel Pavilion for their trip to the Final Four in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
UCONN dance team members cheer on the women’s basketball team as they exit Gampel Pavilion for their trip to the Final Four in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
STORRS — Emerging from a sea of fans, students and local media, the UConn women’s basketball team was escorted to the charter buses that began its first leg of travel on the way to the Final Four in Minneapolis Tuesday afternoon.
As fans screamed and cheered and the UConn band blasted its fight song, the Huskies took in the moment. Some took out their phones to document the scene while others simply gazed out at the crowd of a few hundred people.
Senior Evina Westbrook took a microphone and addressed the crowd. She thanked the fans for their support all season and ended her speech with an encouraging, “Let’s go get this!” Which of course was met by a loud uproar from the crowd. After fracturing her wrist in Monday’s Elite Eight win over NC State, graduate transfer Dorka Juhász appeared to be in good spirits as she bent down, arm sling and all, to pet and take pictures with Jonathan, the Huskies’ live mascot.
There were moments in Monday’s double-overtime thriller where it looked like maybe this moment, Tuesday morning, wouldn’t have happened. There were moments this season where the Huskies were in the depths of injury absences and looking for any and every silver lining.
Yet, UConn tuckered through all season long. Players stepped up when needed and called upon. Paige Bueckers went off for 27 points in 45 minutes against the Wolfpack to extend the team’s season as least one more game: against No. 1 seed Stanford in Friday’s Final Four (9:30 p.m., ESPN). It’s the Huskies’ 14th straight appearance in the national semifinals and 22nd overall.
The No. 2 Huskies flew out of Connecticut Tuesday headed toward Minneapolis — less than a 20-minute drive from Bueckers’ hometown of Hopkins, Minn. It’s the same backdrop from UConn’s first national championship in 1995. While the team’s depth took a major hit Monday with the loss of Juhász, these Huskies are determined to repeat what happened 27 years ago and bring back title No. 12.
“Anytime you go to the Final Four, it’s significant. It was the very first time we went, and it feels that way today,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said in Tuesday’s media conference.
Auriemma says he still remembers most details for UConn’s 1995 championship win over Tennessee. The team featured all-time UConn greats Jennifer Rizzotti, Jamelle Elliott, Kara Wolters, and Nykesha Sales. It was the first of UConn’s record 11 national titles.
“Every memory that I have about that game is burned into my mind,” he said. “I can probably remember every single possession. I can remember every timeout, halftime what we did, where we stayed, everything, because everything was just so big. We were riding that undefeated season. We were getting unprecedented attention that had never been bestowed on a women’s basketball program. So, we were dealing with a lot, and the excitement was unbelievable.
“But the Target Center will always have a special place in our hearts here at Connecticut.”
While Minneapolis has surely changed since then, so has UConn.
The Huskies’ roster this season is highlighted by last year’s national player of the year in Bueckers. It boasts three former No. 1 recruits including sharpshooter Azzi Fudd. Yet, because of a vicious cycle of injuries this season the team has played less than half its games with a full squad.
Eight of UConn’s 12 players missed at least two games or more due to injury or illness. Only Westbrook and Aaliyah Edwards have played all 34 games. Junior Aubrey Griffin missed the whole season due to a back injury.
Juhász became the latest player to go down Monday. The former All-Big Ten forward is out the remainder of the season after fracturing her wrist following an awkward landing battling for the ball under the basket on Monday. It’s unknown yet if she’ll have surgery. The Hungarian has one year of eligibility left, and while she has yet to make an official decision about next season, she told Auriemma that she plans on returning to Storrs to finish her collegiate career.
“It’s kind of par for the course for this particular season. We lose a big kid that is playing in their first NCAA tournament — and Dorka was so excited that she couldn’t see straight in the first couple games,” Auriemma said. “(It’s) devastating for her. But it could only happen to us three days before we play the longest, most athletic front line, the tallest group of players that exist in the tournament, that being Stanford’s team and their amazing post players.”
Also, in news of player availability … after missing last weekend’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight due to academic responsibilities back on campus, sophomore Piath Gabriel was seen back with the team Tuesday departing from Storrs.
UConn’s matchup with Stanford, last year’s national champion, will be the teams’ first meeting since 2017. The Huskies lead the all-time series 11-7, including defeating the Cardinal 87-60 in 1995’s Final Four.
Auriemma will have a limited frontcourt come Friday without Juhász, and will need Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa to avoid foul trouble against the size and physicality of Stanford.
“What adjustments can we make? All we can do is do what we do,” he said. “We’ve got to play with what we have. We can obviously tinker with some lineup situations as the game goes on. But we have what we have, and that’s not changing. We’re going to have to figure out a way to win with it. It’s unfortunate, but that’s kind of been our season this year.”
The Hall of Fame coach said after Monday’s win, there were times this season he didn’t know if the team would reach this stage. There were moments where he was bracing to be without Bueckers and Fudd all year. While Monday’s game was chaotic and messy, it was a glimpse into what him and this team have been through all year with one unexpected injury after another. UConn got beat down and came back up.
Moments after the Huskies boarded the team bus Tuesday afternoon, Christyn Williams was seen inside the front of the bus pointing out to a young boy in a wheelchair in the crowd. The boy’s mom, Amannda Ramsdell picked up her son, Michael, and placed him on her shoulders. The sea of fans parted like the Red Sea as the Huskies climbed out of the bus and met the mom and son in the middle. They cheered with Michael as he raised his arms up to meet theirs.
UConn’s season has been anything but smooth this year. On Friday, the team will get another chance to extend the chaotic-yet-inspiring year one more game.
“What’s unique about this one (Final Four) obviously is the journey we took to get there, how we had to navigate the season with everything that transpired,” Auriemma said. “And I couldn’t be happier for everyone associated with our program, and I couldn’t be more proud of our players and our coaching staff and our support staff for managing this incredibly difficult situation all year long and giving us a chance to compete for a National Championship.”
maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com
Maggie is a general assignment sports reporter for Hearst CT Media who focuses on highlighting the humanity within athletics with every feature. She comes to Connecticut after growing up and working all along the West Coast, including stops at The Seattle Times and The Orange County Register. Outside of writing, she enjoys spontaneous adventures, reading, hiking and visiting her family back home in Portland, Oregon.

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