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Tough finish for Huskies in semifinal loss to Iowa

the UConn women’s basketball team dropped a 71-69 decision to Iowa in Friday night’s semifinal game in Cleveland. (Photo courtesy UConn Athletics)

The call for an offensive foul with 3.9 seconds left in regulation of Friday night’s national semifinal against Iowa will certainly leave a sour taste in the mouth of UConn women’s basketball fans.

With 10.8 seconds left in the game, the short-handed Huskies trailed Iowa and superstar Caitlin Clark by one point and had an opportunity to get off a potential game-winning shot and steal a spot in Sunday’s NCAA championship against undefeated South Carolina.

But Aaliyah Edwards was called for an illegal screen as UConn teammate Paige Bueckers battled to get open for a shot. Turnover for UConn and game over. Iowa advanced to the championship game for the second year in a row with a 71-69 victory at the Rocket Mortgage Field House in Cleveland.

It was a frustrating end for the Huskies who played so valiantly throughout the game. UConn forced 12 turnovers from Iowa in the first half and led by as many as 12 points in the first half.

The game was tied 51-51 after three periods and even though the Hawkeyes took a 66-57 lead with 5:43 remaining, the Huskies (33-6) continued to battle.

Edwards took a nice pass from Bueckers on her way to the basket to cut the Hawkeye lead to four, 70-66 with 1:53 remaining. With about 42 seconds left and down by four, it was Nika Muhl with a steal from Clark. A few seconds later, Muhl hit a three-point shot with 39.3 seconds left to cut the lead to one 70-69.

UConn’s KK Arnold got her team-high fifth steal with 10.7 seconds remaining to give the Huskies possession of the ball and a shot to win the game. The foul call on Edwards was criticized by many commentators and writers in the first hour after the game.

It looked like the referees were letting the players decide things, especially when Clark lowered her shoulder and hit Arnold in the chest with her shoulder, sending Arnold flying backwards as she drove to the basket with 7:56 left in the game.

But the call on Edwards was made and the Huskies will have to live with it.

“Everybody can make a big deal of that one single play, but not one single play wins a basketball game or loses a basketball game” Bueckers said.. “I feel there were a lot of mistakes that I made that could have prevented that play from even being that big or causing the game.

“So, you can look at one play and say, oh, that killed us or that hurt us. But we should have done a better job,” she said. “I should have done a better job of making sure we didn’t leave the game up to chance like that and leave the game up to one bad call going our way and that deciding it.

“Yeah, maybe that was a tough call for us, but I feel like I could have done a better job preventing that from even happening,” Bueckers said.

Muhl and the Huskies played smothering defense in the first half, with 11 steals and forcing 12 turnovers from the Hawkeyes. A UConn led 32-26 at the half and led by 12 at one point in the first half. Arnold and Edwards had four steals each.

Clark, the nation’s leading scorer who dropped 41 points in the regional championship game, was held to just six points in the first 20 minutes, hitting just three of 11 shots from the floor.

So Clark, who finished with seven assists, turned to her teammates. Sophomore Hannah Stuelke had a career-high 23 points while Kate Martin had 11 points, including some crucial baskets in the fourth quarter.

Iowa sank eight of 12 shots in the fourth quarter.

Clark did finish with 21 points, nine rebounds and seven assists for Iowa (31-4) while Bueckers and Edwards each 17 points for the Huskies. Bueckers had three assists and four rebounds while Edwards had eight rebounds and five steals.

“UConn is a really good defensive team, one of the best defensive teams we’ve seen all year,” Clark said. “I think Nika did a tremendous job guarding me.

“We got some good looks. They just didn’t go in. And sometimes that’s just what happens. We missed some easy bunnies around the rim,” she said. “We knew at some point our shots would go down. We put up 45 points in the second half, 25 in the third quarter. Came out in the fourth quarter, started really hot.

“So I don’t think it was like freaking out about offense not working,” Clark said. “I think it was just it will come around. We didn’t execute great, and we were only down six (at halftime). Nobody panicked. Everybody knew we just needed to clean it up a little bit, and that’s exactly what we did.”

“I mean, we can’t really control what happens with the refs and their decision-making, but I just want to focus more on this team and actually making it all the way to this game when a lot of people didn’t count us in,” Edwards said.

“So I’m going to leave this game with being proud of the team and proud of how we, game in, game out, just continued to believe in each other and lean on one another. And unfortunately we just didn’t leave this game with a W, but we fought hard up until the very end,” she said. “And we left it out there on the court today.”

The Huskies have lost in five of their last six semifinal games.

“The expectations at UConn are what they are because we created them,” Auriemma said. “Somebody didn’t walk into our building and say, okay, this is what’s expected of you. We put that on ourselves now for the last 30 years.

“What pisses me off is the minute we don’t win a national championship for a couple of years, people think that our program now is less worthy of some others that have done it twice or have gone to the Final Four three out of the last four years.

“I said this a long time ago. The only story is, like, when Tiger was at the height of his career, the only story on every Sunday was he didn’t win. Nobody cared who did win. And now people always wanted it to be, like, well, can we celebrate other people? Okay. Celebrate them. Stop talking about us when we don’t win a national championship.

“But, again, that’s the world we created. And we might not win a national championship, but we’re right there when it’s usually being decided — and that’s all that matters,” Auriemma said.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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