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Original Issue


In an unfamiliar position (a No. 2 seed?) against an opponent that recently had its number, UConn found a way to reach its 12th consecutive Final Four, riding a pair of seniors who have merely combined for the most points in the program's illustrious history—and still have a lot to prove

UNDERDOGS? YES, the No. 2 Huskies were the team wearing the dark uniforms and sitting on the visitors' bench in Albany, N.Y., for an Elite Eight matchup with top-seeded Louisville on March 31. And it was the Cardinals who had the best player on the court (senior guard Asia Durr) and a winning streak in the series. (O.K., it was just one game long, after a 78--69 victory on Jan. 31.)

Normally by this time of year, the narrative of women's basketball is UConn versus Everybody Else, with a subplot of, Is UConn good for women's basketball? But this season the Huskies have more in common with the field. They lost two regular-season games for the first time since 2012--13. Seniors Katie Lou Samuelson, a 6'3" guard, and Napheesa Collier, a 6'2" forward, became the highest-scoring duo in program history, with 4,708 points, but because they have only one (gasp!) national title in three seasons, they failed to earn the accolades of previous Huskies stars. Before the game Samuelson said this season had been filled with "behind-the-scenes" conversations as the team struggled to jell, with harder practices focused on rebounding and defense, and "ups and downs."

The Cardinals, too, were in a fight for respect. On the eve of the game, coach Jeff Walz called out Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, who had tweeted congratulations to Kentucky's men's team for making the Elite Eight but neglected to mention the women's squad from another part of the state. Walz sarcastically tweeted that he would "make sure to let my players know you said congrats!"

The high stakes and high emotions yielded an epic battle. Samuelson (who hit seven threes) and Collier combined to put up 41 points, to propel UConn to an 80--73 victory and an NCAA-record 12th straight Final Four. Samuelson also hit two key free throws with 23.6 seconds left after the Cardinals had cut the lead to two. Durr went down fighting, with 21 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

When the buzzer sounded 5'5" junior guard Crystal Dangerfield jumped into Samuelson's arms, wrapped her legs around her teammate and held on tight, long enough for the rest of the Huskies to join the celebration. (Behind 5'11" senior guard Sabrina Ionescu, who had 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, Oregon upset Mississippi State 88--84 to earn a Final Four berth out of the Portland Regional; the other two spots were decided after SI went to press.)

"When Lou and Napheesa were freshmen, we had the kind of players that, if Napheesa and Lou didn't show up for the game, it was just a matter of how much we're going to win by, not whether we were going to win," coach Geno Auriemma said after the game. "Now, to see them at the end of their four years, it's all on their shoulders. They have to play great, both of them or at least one of them, or we don't have a chance to win. And this is the first time they've been in that situation. And they kind of took that load and took it personally."

The 65-year-old Auriemma, who is headed to his 20th Final Four, added that it still felt as good as his first. "I'm glad that at my age, I'm getting to experience this because I don't ever want it to become ... like, 'What did you do today? Oh, we're going to the Final Four. Good job, man,'" he said. "It's still got to mean a lot and you still have to feel it in your soul."