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Final Four Preview: UConn even surprised itself by getting to Cleveland

Not much has been easy for the Huskies this season, yet they'r one of four teams still standing.

Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

How to watch

Date: Friday, Apr. 5

Time: 9:30 p.m. ET (approximately 30 minutes after the first game ends)

Location: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland, OH


Radio: UConn Sports Network (97.9 Fox Sports and affiliates)

1-seed Iowa Hawkeyes

Record: 33-4 (15-3 Big Ten)

Location: Iowa City, Iowa

Head coach: Lisa Bluder (24th season)

UConn even surprised itself by getting to Cleveland

As UConn spoke to the media ahead of its Final Four matchup with Iowa, it took on the role of underdog. The Huskies are a 3-seed going up against a 1-seed and weren’t exactly favorites to make it to Cleveland.

On one hand, that’s tough to do for a program with 11 national championships and a 14-year Final Four streak that only ended last season. Yet there were times throughout the campaign where UConn really didn’t look like it would make it this far. The Huskies themselves questioned whether they could do it.

“I’m super surprised and shocked that we pulled this off,” Nika Mühl said. “As much as I believe in our team and I always believe that we can win every game, there's always just a little part of me that still knows that ‘You're the underdog.’”

That wasn’t always the case, though. During summer workouts, UConn looked like a favorite — if not the favorite — to win the national championship. Paige Bueckers would be back from a torn ACL alongside a loaded backcourt that featured Mühl, Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme and a stud freshmen class of KK Arnold, Ashlynn Shade and Qadence Samuels.

Down low, Aaliyah Edwards and Aubrey Griffin would be the veteran leaders down low for a high-upside group that included Jana El Alfy, Ayanna Patterson and Ice Brady.

They were loaded.

“If you would have talked to me in June this year, I would tell you, ‘Yeah, it was going to be us and South Carolina playing for the national championship,’” Geno Auriemma said.

Then the injuries started. El Alfy ruptured her achilles while playing for Team Egypt. Patterson never played due to knee issues that eventually required season-ending surgery. Fudd tore her ACL just two games in while Ducharme got shut down after five games with head/neck issues.

Under that cloud, UConn got off to its worst start since Auriemma’s first season in charge.

“As things started to happen, I started to believe something different. You have to be realistic,” the coach said.

When they got walloped at Texas in December and dropped to 4-3, the Huskies were barely hanging onto their place in the AP Poll. The Final Four was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

“There were some times even throughout the season, where we were pretty down and ourselves and we didn't see how this will all work out,” Bueckers explained.

Eventually, UConn got it back on track and used a 13-game winning streak to rebuild its confidence. As the regular season wrapped up and March dawned, the Huskies knew they had a chance at reaching Cleveland, but it wasn’t guaranteed like years past.

“Does that mean that we just wanted to hope we make the round of 64 and then see what happens? No,” Auriemma said. “There was always a, ‘Yeah, we can get there, but everything has to be done perfectly.’ In my mind, I had a lot of plans for this weekend. It didn't include this.”

Yet UConn has marched its way through the bracket to Cleveland. It beat Jackson State and Syracuse in two tough games during the opening rounds, fought through a defensive battle against Duke in the Sweet Sixteen then toppled top-seeded USC in the Elite Eight to punch a ticket to the Final Four.

“We always kept the faith,” Bueckers said. “No matter who we have, we always have confidence in whoever we have out there.”

Maybe it helped that the Huskies had no other choice but to make it here — or at least they felt that way.

“Our players will tell you this: They say playing at Connecticut is the greatest thing ever, but playing at Connecticut is hard as hell because if two guys foul out tomorrow, we're supposed to be able to compete five against three because that's the illogical, delusional expectations that exist out there,” Auriemma said.

“It's also the UConn way,” Bueckers said. “No matter who we have on the floor, whether it’s four players, five players, three players, we’re always expected to win and make a run in and go deep into the tourney.”

If that didn’t happen this season, nobody would’ve blamed them. The Huskies have been through three consecutive injury-marred campaigns, but this one has been the worst with six players all out for the year. They have just eight healthy players left and rely on a rotation that features four freshmen compared to just three seniors.

Yet here they are.

“This year was certainly one of the most challenging seasons my career,” Auriemma said. “I have a lot of admiration and I'm really proud of my team, and especially these three (the seniors) — everything they've been through the last four years — for them to be here right now in this spot is probably one of the most gratifying things that I've had to experience in all my 40 years at Connecticut.”

Scouting the Hawkeyes

Iowa is appearing in its second straight Final Four after losing in the championship game to LSU last season. The Hawkeyes are ranked as the No. 2 team in the nation by Her Hoop Stats. They’re powered by their offense, leading the country in points per 100 possessions (118.2), 2-point field goal percentage (59.7), effective field goal percentage (58.4), points per scoring attempt (1.23) and points per play (1.04).

The defense is the weak point. Iowa gives up 71.5 points per game, which sits in the bottom 13 percent of the nation.

Statistical leaders

Points: 32.0 — Caitlin Clark
Rebounds: 7.3 — Caitlin Clark
Assists: 9.0 — Caitlin Clark
Steals: 1.8 — Caitlin Clark
3-point %: 46.1 — Taylor McCabe

How they got here

Iowa earned the top seed in Albany Region 1 and cruised through the first two rounds with no issue, taking out 16-seed Holy Cross and 8-seed West Virginia. In the Sweet Sixteen, the Hawkeyes smoked 5-seed Colorado then beat 3-seed LSU in the Elite to get revenge in a rematch of last year’s national championship game.

Series history

UConn is 6-3 all-time against Iowa and is currently on a six-game winning streak. The two sides have met three times in the postseason: The second round in 1997 and 2002 as well as the 2021 Sweet Sixteen — all of which were victories for the Huskies.

The last time they played was Nov. 2022 in the PK85 championship game in Portland, Oregon, which UConn won behind 22 second half points from Azzi Fudd.

By the numbers

23 — Caitlin Clark has averaged 23.0 points per game in two games against UConn, below her career average of 28.5.

12-10 — The Huskies are 12-10 in the national semifinal. They defeated Stanford in their last Final Four appearance back in 2022.

22 — Paige Bueckers is averaging 22.0 points per game, the third-highest single-season mark in program history. Only Maya Moore (22.8 in 2010-11) and Kerry Bascom (22.6 in 1988-89) have her beat.

1 — UConn has only played in Cleveland just once in its history: An 85-51 win at Cleveland State in a homecoming game for Barbara Turner. The Huskies missed out on the last Final Four in Cleveland back in 2007.

0.30 — While Paige Bueckers is second to Caitlin Clark nationally in win shares, the two both have 0.30 win shares per 40.

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