MINNEAPOLIS — Prior to tipoff of every game that her family attends, UConn redshirt senior forward Evina Westbrook tries to spot her mother, Eva. Westbrook doesn’t get worried, per se, if she doesn’t initially find her, but she looks for in the stands and they’ve developed a routine over the years. Even at the Final Four, there’s no reason to break it. “We make eye contact and then she finishes warming up,” Eva says.
New this year, however, is what Westbrook does after pregame festivities conclude. In her debut campaign with UConn last season, Westbrook started all 30 games; in 2021–22 she’s started only 15, and just twice since Jan. 23. Now playing the role of a key reserve, Eva says her daughter has handled the adjustment with “maturity.”
“That’s how you have to,” she adds. “Evina came to UConn not because she thought anything was going to be given to her easy. She came here to be coached by the best coach and to play with the best players.”
In No. 2 UConn’s 63–58 win over No. 1 Stanford on Friday night, the Huskies’ top players didn’t play their best. Last year’s National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers scored only 14 points and committed five turnovers. Star freshman Azzi Fudd added eight points and was hampered by first-half foul trouble. In their place, however, was Westbrook and her fellow seniors, center Olivia Nelson-Ododa and guard Christyn Williams.
Said sophomore guard Nika Muhl: “They just want to win. And we’re there to follow them. We’re listening to them.”
UConn was playing in its 14th consecutive Final Four, but not since 2016 had it reached the sport’s title game. That all will change in 48 hours, however, after grinding out a victory over the defending champions. “By some unknown miracle, we’re playing Sunday night,” coach Geno Auriemma said.
With two of the winningest coaches in the sport pacing the sidelines, in Auriemma and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, the national semifinal opened much like a heavyweight prizefight. The scoreboard read 4–2 at the midway point of the first quarter, with the Huskies throwing various defensive looks at the Cardinal—2–3 zone, full-court pressure and man-to-man—hoping to find something, anything, that would derail a Stanford offense that was No. 5 nationally in rating.
On Thursday, Auriemma said he thought his team and its opponent mirrored each other. “Which I don’t like,” he added. And for much of the night, neither team could pull away from its reflection.
After leading by only three after the first quarter, both sophomore forward Aaliyah Edwards and Fudd picked up second fouls less than two minutes into the second. It was then, though, that Westbrook emerged as a steadying force. She calmly buried two triples, for six of her 12 points, with every basket helping UConn to take a 27–26 lead into the halftime locker room.
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The third quarter looked much like the first, with the two teams scoring just 12 combined points through the first 5:45 of the period. But at the 2:22 mark, with Stanford having claimed a one-point lead, Auriemma reinserted both Williams and Nelson-Ododa into the lineup, and suddenly the teams’ on-court reflections began to differ.
On UConn’s ensuing offensive possession, Williams buried a triple. On the Huskies’ next trip down the floor, Nelson-Ododa knocked down a midrange jump shot. After entering the fourth quarter up two, Nelson-Ododa then converted an old-fashioned three-point play, to stretch the Huskies’ lead to five. Then Williams hit her second triple and Nelson-Ododa made a pair of free throws—though Auriemma said afterward the first “was like a bullet” and the second “somehow rolled in.” And suddenly, after an 11-point spurt by their seniors, the Huskies’ led by eight.
While the Cardinal would chip away at their opponent’s advantage in the game’s final seven and a half minutes, UConn’s ending on Friday was rather tame by its recent standards: There were no last-second shots or overtimes after all. Still, Auriemma said, “I don’t know what more I can say about this group than we’ve been saying, but it was pretty remarkable, to be honest with you.”
The Cardinal rode a 24-game winning streak into Minneapolis, having had all but one player on last year’s title team return this season. And yet, against the Huskies, the added experience didn’t necessarily translate to additional comfort. “I think we really struggled running our offense,” VanDerveer said. “I think there were some self-inflicted wounds, what we were doing out there, and it was disappointing.”
Pac-12 Player of the Year Haley Jones notched 20 points for Stanford and sophomore forward Cameron Brink added 15. But no other player scored more than six points, let alone in double-digits.
“We said the other day that points are hard to come by in this tournament,” Auriemma said. “Today was certainly no different.”
As she has done for every UConn game this season, Williams led her team out of the tunnel for pregame warmups. But on Friday night, after 40 grueling minutes and with a spot in the national championship game against South Carolina having been secured, she was also the first Huskies player to jog to the locker room.
Williams did so after saluting the UConn fans that had watched the win from across the team’s bench, knowing that the last game of her career will come Sunday when an elusive title is on the line.
“I hope they got one more night in them,” Auriemma said.
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