Third-seeded Arizona stuns No. 1 UConn in Final Four

SAN ANTONIO — It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for UConn, chasing its 12th national championship and first in five years.

The Huskies had survived a sometimes challenging road in the River Walk regional and looked, at long last, bound for a return to the NCAA title game.

But that’s not how Arizona saw it. Not even close. The third-seeded Wildcats, a newcomer to the Final Four, didn’t care about the odds, and they certainly weren’t intimidated by history — or more specifically, the UConn mystique that has befallen so many others.

They were just tougher, more active defensively. And No. 1 UConn, appearing frazzled and rushed, didn’t know how to respond. The Huskies’ season is over following a stunning 69-59 defeat to Arizona on Friday at the Alamodome.

Arizona, a double-digit underdog, never trailed, dealing the Huskies their fourth consecutive loss in the Final Four. UConn has not won a national title since 2016. The Wildcats will play top overall seed Stanford in an All-Pac 12 final on Sunday.

“I think we came out with the wrong mentality,” said UConn junior Christyn Williams, who led the Huskies with 20 points. “I thought we thought it was going to be easy, I guess, and we got flustered.

“They had great ball pressure. It wasn’t like anything that we’ve seen this season. We just couldn’t get in the flow offensively.”

Not even Paige Bueckers, who maybe for the first time in this NCAA Tournament looked ordinary. The Wildcats did what most have been unable to do, limiting Bueckers, the AP Player of the Year, to a quiet 18 points on 5 of 13 shooting. She was outplayed by Arizona senior Aari McDonald, who sank four 3-pointers and poured in 26 points.

“They just tried to deny the ball, make everything hard touches, cause screening,” Bueckers explained. “Defensively, they just tried to deny everything that I did.”

The Huskies (28-2) didn’t hit shots they normally do, nor did they play with the same energy opponents are accustomed to seeing. They shot a season-worst 38.7% and failed to crack 60 points for the first time all year.

“We just didn’t come out with the same fire that we had against Baylor,” guard Evina Westbrook said. “At this point of the season we have to come out like we’re playing the best in the nation every night.”

Arizona — ranked 13th in the country in scoring defense — sent a message at the outset, hounding the Huskies along the perimeter and muscling up to them in the paint. UConn didn’t score for the first 3:01, missed its first five shots, and trailed 6-0 out of the gate. The Wildcats maintained that lead throughout the half, going up as much as 12 on multiple occasions in the second quarter.

“That first half, it was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “And I thought the intensity level that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end, we just didn’t respond as I hoped we would.”

Said Arizona forward Sam Thomas: “The main thing we wanted to do was get them off their game. … We just wanted to try to throw them off their game as much as possible.”

And that they did, time and again, for 40 minutes. UConn made just 6 of 31 contested shots and was particularly woeful around the rim, converting only 7 of 22 layup attempts.

“Their defense took us out of our offense,” Auriemma said. “We were in scramble mode a lot offensively. We got it back I think, then we just missed shots that you got to make at this level, at this point in time. You’ve got to make those shots. You’ve got to make those free throws. You’ve got to make those layups that you get. You’ve got to make those open 3’s that you get. They’re not easy to come by.”

Still, the Huskies, who trailed by as many as 14 in the third quarter, pulled within 62-57 with 1:03 remaining. But they never got closer.

“We just weren’t making the shots that we normally make,” Westbrook said. “We’re usually aggressive down there, especially our bigs down there. They just weren’t going. We just weren’t making those shots.”

Junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa was 0-for-5 on layups and 0-for-7 overall, finishing with just one point in 20 minutes. Freshman Aaliyah Edwards was held to 8 points.

Arizona’s halftime lead, 32-22, might’ve been more if not for Williams, who was the only Husky in double figures (12) at the break. But while Bueckers’ offense picked up in the second half (13 points), Williams began to find herself in foul trouble. She picked up her fourth with 6:05 left, then fouled out on a questionable call with 3:51 remaining and her team trailing 55-46.

“Me personally, I didn’t think it was a foul on me,” Williams said. “I thought it was on Liv. I knew I had four fouls, so obviously I was devastated because I had to go out of the game. … Obviously I wanted to be out there.”

Besides Williams and Bueckers, Westbrook, a redshirt junior, was the only other Husky in double figures with 10 points. Thomas and forward Cate Reese scored 12 and 11 points, respectively, for the Wildcats, who shot 40% from the floor. Arizona was 22 of 31 from the free-throw line while UConn was 14 of 20.

Westbrook found herself embarrassed by the loss.

“I think in any game, you know, we know that teams are going to come at us because of what it says on our jersey,” she said. “We have to come out and be ready to play. At the end of the day, we didn’t come out with a lot of energy. They came out with more energy than we did. They were hitting shots. We weren’t able to flow into our offense.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour