SAN ANTONIO – Paige Bueckers' quest for a national title will have to wait a year. Her next chance might come in her hometown.
Bueckers and her heavily favored UConn team slammed into a defensive roadblock Friday night, losing 69-59 to Arizona in the women's national semifinals at the Alamodome.
Bueckers, the first freshman to win AP National Player of the Year honors, was smothered all game by Arizona's defensive pressure. She finished with 18 points but had to work hard for every inch of space on the court.
Clutch in pressure moments all season, Bueckers had no magic this time. Arizona's defense and late free-throw shooting were too much.
"They just tried to deny the ball and make everything hard — catches, cuts, screening," Bueckers said. "Defensively they just tried to deny everything that I did."
With the Final Four coming to Target Center next year, the former Hopkins star will try to hoist the championship trophy in a place she knows well.
"We're just pushing forward and trying to continue to get better on and off the court," Bueckers said. "Just looking forward to getting back to work and winning a national championship next year."
UConn was making its 13th consecutive appearance in the Final Four while Arizona was on this big stage for the first time. The Wildcats showed no nerves. They rode their defense to victory and will face Stanford in an all-Pac-12 title game.
If being in the Final Four for the first time wasn't enough motivation, the NCAA handed Arizona even more reason to be fired up.
The NCAA produced a hype video for the Final Four that included only three teams — UConn, Stanford and South Carolina. Arizona was not included in the promo.
Their coaches and players noticed. The NCAA later deleted the tweet and issued an apology.
The Wildcats, coached by former Lynx player Adia Barnes, got the message. They felt disrespected and played with that anger. Especially on the defensive end.
"They played amazing," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "That first half was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done. The intensity level that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end, we just didn't respond as I had hoped we would."
UConn struggled to establish any rhythm or flow against Arizona's stifling ball pressure. When the Huskies did get the ball inside, they missed layups. Lots of missed layups.
UConn ranked fourth nationally in scoring at 82.7 points per game but managed only 22 points by halftime vs. the Wildcats, who limit opponents to 55 points per game.
The catalyst for Arizona on both ends was All-America point guard Aari McDonald, a projected first-round WNBA draft pick later this month. McDonald is a two-time Pac-12 defensive Player of the Year so it was natural that she drew the Bueckers assignment.
The cat-quick McDonald smothered Bueckers when she didn't have the ball in her hands, keeping an arm in the passing lane to prevent easy touches. When Bueckers did get the ball and went to pick-and-roll, Arizona double-teamed her.
McDonald also scored a game-high 26 points, using her quickness to create shots for herself.
"I said going into the game that I don't think we've had to play against a guard as good as she is, and she proved it tonight," Auriemma said. "She just dominated the entire game, start to finish. We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her."
Arizona led by double digits throughout the second half. UConn trailed Baylor by 10 points in the third quarter of the Elite Eight, so the Huskies had been in a similarly tough position. But Arizona's defense never let up.