From the very first possession on Friday night, Arizona’s national semifinal game against Connecticut was an exercise in slow, grind-it-out basketball, with a lot of missed shots and long, labored possessions. It was exactly what Arizona wanted.
The Wildcats immediately established their strategy: suffocating defense with the steals to show for it, energetic rebounding and lots of 3-point shots. They pestered the No. 1 seed Huskies possession after possession, racking up a few more fouls than was optimal but ultimately throttling their heavily favored opponent from start to finish to secure a 69-59 victory and their first trip to the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball title game.
“We shocked the world tonight,” said Aari McDonald, a senior whose game-high 26 points seemed to come at exactly the moments the third-seeded Wildcats needed them most. “Keep betting against me and my teammates, we’re going to prove you wrong.”
Arizona, a No. 3 seed, will face top-seeded Stanford in the final on Sunday after derailing UConn, the most dominant program in the tournament’s history, and its heralded freshman, Paige Bueckers.
Instead McDonald took over the stage, hitting two 3-point shots in the first quarter as the team went 6 of 13 on 3-pointers in the first half.
“The first five minutes of the game are crucial,” McDonald said. “Coach Barnes hates it when I take 3s on the first possession, but I was feeling it.”
Adia Barnes, the Arizona coach, had talked about the importance of not being intimidated by UConn’s history.
“To win a championship, all you have to do is beat that team one time,” she had told reporters after her program advanced to its first spot in the Final Four.
The Wildcats had a 32-22 lead at halftime, having held Connecticut to its lowest-scoring half of the season.
The Huskies appeared to be within spitting distance for much of the second half without really sparking a significant comeback. Most of its efforts were led by junior Christyn Williams, who had 12 points in the first half and finished with 20 to lead the Huskies. But Arizona never really let up, and Williams fouled out with less than five minutes to play.
“I think we came out with the wrong mentality,” Williams said. “We thought it was going to be easy, I guess, and we got flustered.”
Anytime the Huskies looked as if they might have a chance to take control, McDonald would hit an impossible-to-ignore circus shot — like the one that she made with Evina Westbrook’s hand directly in front of her face in the second quarter.
“I don’t think we’ve had to play against a guard as good as she is and she proved it tonight,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said after the game. “We had no answer for her.”
Whenever Connecticut was on offense, the Wildcats would chant “D up!” over and over. Guards Shaina Pellington and Bendu Yeaney neutralized Bueckers, allowing the guard, who typically scores 20 points per game, just one field goal in the first half. Bueckers, who has averaged 52.4 percent shooting, finished the night with 18 points and shot 38.4 percent, missing eight of her 13 shots.
By the end of the first half, McDonald was running out the clock with the self-assurance of someone who had already won the game, waiting until the last seconds ticked off so she could try to hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer (she missed it).
Connecticut outscored Arizona in the third quarter, but not enough to dig out of the 10-point hole in which they started it.
The teams traded steals and turnovers, continuing their messy, physical game, with Arizona holding the Huskies at a distance while meticulously draining the shot clock on each possession.
At one point, Wildcats guard Helena Pueyo scored with some tricky footwork to bring Connecticut’s deficit to 14 — the Huskies’ largest of the season. Auriemma immediately called a timeout, and Wildcat fans were euphoric.
Arizona’s lead began to gradually shrink in the fourth quarter, as the Wildcats’ shots stopped falling with as much ease as they had earlier in the game. With seven minutes left in the game, though, McDonald hit a fadeaway jumper, giving Arizona a little breathing room once again.
That cycle would repeat itself. With 4 minutes, 23 seconds left, the Wildcats were up 9 points — a lead that seemed fragile, as the team had hit just two of its 10 previous shots and more and more Arizona players got into foul trouble. Barnes took a timeout.
The Wildcats immediately fouled Williams, and she hit both her free throws. But McDonald once again charged through traffic that would have seemed impenetrable for anyone else and wound up at the basket, fighting through contact for the bucket and a 3-point play — and also getting Williams out of the game with her fifth foul. (Video replays appeared to show that she did not touch McDonald on the play.)
The clock kept ticking down, and with two minutes left Bueckers hit her fourth field goal to reduce the gap to 7 points. Then it dropped to 6, and with a minute left, just 5 points separated the Huskies from their fourth consecutive Final Four loss. Connecticut started fouling Arizona early, but the Wildcats hit five of their eight free throws in the final minute of the game, and that was enough to seal the win.
“I’ve said all along this year, we have a very immature group,” Auriemma said. “We need to grow up if we expect to be back here in the future.”
Barnes did not seem to entirely agree with that assessment.
“Would I want to face UConn in a seven-game series?” she said. “Absolutely not.”
Now her team will face a fellow member of the Pac-12, a Stanford team that defeated the Wildcats twice this season.
But after taking down Connecticut, Arizona does not seem likely to be intimidated by any opponent.
“We were the underdogs,” McDonald said. “It makes us play harder, everybody thinking we can’t beat these top teams. We’re made for it, like Coach says.”