'A matter of time': UConn's Final Four streak ends with loss

SEATTLE -- UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma remarked earlier this season that all good things must come to an end after the Huskies snapped a remarkable streak dating back to March 1993 of not dropping back-to-back games.

The same could be said Saturday, albeit regarding something of much greater consequence and more shocking magnitude: No. 2 seed UConn will not appear in the Final Four for the first time since 2007 after falling in the Sweet 16 of the Seattle 3 Regional to the No. 3 seed Ohio State Buckeyes 73-61 at Climate Pledge Arena.

It's also the first time since 2005 that the Huskies bowed out as early as the regional semifinal in the NCAA tournament. Their 16-year streak for making the Elite Eight and 14-year streak for advancing to the Final Four were records across men's and women's basketball.

"The problem with streaks is the longer they go, you're closer to it ending than you are to the beginning of it," said Auriemma, whose 11 national titles are the most in the sport. "And it's just a matter of time. I think that the other thing that you take from it is how incredibly difficult it is to win in March in the NCAA tournament, and because we made it look so routine and so easy, we gave the impression that it's very easy to do. It's a reminder that, no, it's not. It's very difficult to do. So you appreciate what we had, what we did, and, you know, you have to start another one next year."

Ohio State will appear in its first Elite Eight since 1993, when the Buckeyes were led by eventual WNBA legend Katie Smith. They will face No. 1 seed Virginia Tech for a spot in the Final Four on Monday.

"When I had the opportunity to come to Ohio State, this was certainly the goal and the vision to go farther than they had been going," Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. "And it's not easy to get here, obviously, but I'm really proud of our team and our program of how we've evolved to be able to get to this point. I have so much respect for Geno and his staff and all that they have accomplished. So for us to be able to win this game in the Sweet 16 is obviously extremely significant. They're just hard to beat. They're so well coached. So this is a great win for us."

Twenty-five UConn turnovers -- including 18 in the first half, off which the Buckeyes scored 19 points -- allowed Ohio State to build its lead. The Huskies didn't help themselves by shooting 7-for-15 from the free throw line, while star forward Aaliyah Edwards played limited minutes (17) due to foul trouble.

A 21-9 second quarter in favor of Ohio State in which the Buckeyes' press and overall defensive pressure wreaked havoc on the Huskies proved to be the difference in the game.

"It was like a punch that kind of put us back a little bit, and it didn't have to be," Auriemma said. "But I think our reaction was so unlike what I've seen in the last month. And I knew we had that in us because we've done that in the past. We have a lot of unsure ball handlers. We have a lot of unsure decision-makers."

As UConn graduate student Dorka Juhasz added, "Nobody wanted the ball. Nobody really was trying to get open... not even just the press, but I felt like they were tougher than us, they outrebounded us, they got the loose balls. They were just tougher with the ball, and that's on us."

Ohio State's press had been the trademark feature of its historic season, which included a program-best 19-0 start despite being without star Jacy Sheldon most of the campaign with an injury. Finally on the upswing with Sheldon back into the fold to start March and an appearance in the Big Ten tournament championship game, the Buckeyes showed why they're one of the best teams in the country when they're clicking.

Saturday's second quarter served as a case in point: Ohio State prompted the Huskies to commit more turnovers (10, with six against the press) than they had points.

"The key is going to be our ability to disrupt them," McGuff said he told his team going into the game. "We certainly were effective. We played really hard in the press, and we executed really well, and I thought we executed some disruptive things in the half court, as well."

UConn trailed by 10 at the half, only the sixth time it faced a double-digit halftime deficit in the NCAA tournament. It is now 0-6 in those appearances.

Though the game was relatively even in terms of scoring in the second half, the Huskies didn't have a major run in them to erase the deficit. They managed to get within five toward the end of the third, but Ohio State continued to hit enough shots to keep them at bay.

Buckeyes freshman Cotie McMahon dazzled with 23 points.

"Other than their defense and our breakdowns, I thought she was the biggest factor in the game," Auriemma said of McMahon.

Graduate student Lou Lopez Senechal paced the Huskies with 25.

Auriemma's squad has been through a litany of injuries this season. In addition to 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers missing all of 2022-23 with an ACL tear, former No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd was sidelined most of the regular season because of knee injuries. While an early tournament exit seemed possible at times as they struggled throughout conference play in February, the Huskies had been playing strong basketball since the calendar turned to March. With Fudd back, they won the Big East tournament and breezed through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Still, the problems the Huskies had throughout the season were the ones Ohio State exploited Saturday. UConn had been turnover-prone this season and could hit ruts offensively, especially when Fudd was out. The game featured the most turnovers the Huskies had committed in a NCAA tournament game in program history. In her sixth game back from injury, Fudd struggled to get going with 14 points on 6-for-17 shooting. But the problems extended beyond that, as she, Juhasz and Lopez Senechal accounted for all but nine of UConn's points.

"That's the problem that we've had all year," Auriemma added. "When we're playing well, we just keep building on and building on and building on and building on. And then when things kind of go sideways for us, they kind of keep going sideways for a while.

"It wasn't like, 'I don't know what to do,' because 'I do know what to do, but I'm in a state of I'm paralyzed.' That's basically what it looked like."

Ohio State's win was the latest in a string of upsets to define the 2023 women's NCAA tournament. Stanford and Indiana, both No. 1 seeds, fell in the second round. Now with UConn and Tennessee losing in the Sweet 16, it is just the second time ever (and first since 1985) that UConn, Tennessee and Stanford have not made the regional final.

"There's just a lot more good players, and so now they're getting spread around," McGuff said of the growing parity in the sport. "And then there's a lot more programs around the country that are really committed to women's basketball."