'Job isn't done': UConn enters unique Final Four with focus on title

SAN ANTONIO — Staged amid a pandemic, this year’s Final Four does not include the pomp and circumstance that UConn coach Geno Auriemma comes to expect.

Not that he necessarily cares.

“Believe me,” Auriemma said Thursday, “there are a lot of things that happen at the Final Four that you can do without. I don’t miss those things one bit. You have more time to prepare your team (this year), which rarely happens.”

For most of his players, though, this is a brand new experience. Juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa are the only current Huskies to have played in a Final Four. Both were freshmen on the team that lost to Notre Dame in the 2019 national semifinals in Tampa, Fla.

The No. 1 Huskies, back on women’s basketball’s grandest stage for the 13th consecutive season and 21st time overall, play third-seeded Arizona on Friday (9:30 p.m., ESPN) at the Alamodome.

It’s a different Final Four, for sure. But the Huskies are embracing the experience.

“The NCAA has done a great job of trying to do everything they possibly could for the Final Four,” Williams said. “Obviously it’s not like the Final Four from freshman year, but they’ve done a great job considering the circumstances.”

Despite operating in insolation throughout the tournament, the team has enjoyed outings outside of the court. There was a riverboat ride earlier in the tournament and the Huskies visited the San Antonio Zoo on Wednesday, a welcomed break from the monotony of the NCAA bubble.

The players especially loved feeding a giraffe.

“That was really cool,” Westbrook said. “Just to get out and be out of our hotel room, be out of the same four walls that we’ve been looking at for a couple weeks now, it was really cool to see the different types of animals. And feeding the giraffe was awesome.”

“I hadn’t been to the zoo since I was little,” added Williams. “It felt good to get some fresh air.”

The NCAA also set up a game room for each of the four remaining teams — UConn, Arizona, Stanford and South Carolina — with ping pong, air hockey and video game consoles.

“As soon as we stepped in there, everybody was playing table tennis, hockey, foosball, PS4, and we’re just screaming having a great time, kind of bringing out the competitive drive in everyone,” forward Aaliyah Edwards said.

Auriemma, who took his first team to the Final Four in 1991, was asked how a newcomer like the Wildcats might handle an experience like this.

“There’s a lot of hoopla that surrounds our program, our kids are used to dealing with — we call it, ‘The circus is in town.’ So when we get to the Final Four, it’s like everything else we do a lot of times during the year,” Auriemma said. “But for some teams, when they fly in and they land and they see the signs and the TV and everything the way it’s set up, the bigness, how big everything is — how long the media is, how much attention from the media, how many photo shoots — it distracts kids, and it becomes more about everything but the game.

“I think Arizona is going to benefit a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, those kids are missing out on a lot of fun, but I think they’re going to benefit from not having to go through all that.”

Edwards, a freshman from Canada, called being at the Final Four “amazing.” She remembers filling out her tournament bracket growing up, then watching the games on TV to see if her picks proved accurate.

“Going into the game tomorrow, we just need to rise to the occasion,” she said. “(We need) to perform to be successful. As a team, we’ve been through a lot this season, it’s been a long season in itself with the pandemic and a lot of other things happening. But we’ve reached this point and we’re not done yet.”

The Huskies (28-1) haven’t been to the national championship game since 2016, which qualifies as a drought in Storrs. Until this season, Arizona had never advanced beyond the Sweet 16.

None of that matters now, though.

“Arizona is a perfect example of a team that really understands who they are, they know what their identity is, they know defensively what they can do, what they want to do, how to do it,” Auriemma said. “They’re aggressive. They just play so hard and they’re so competitive. They’re swarming.”

The Wildcats are 13th in the country in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 55.2 points per game. They also rank 20th in steals (10.6), 35th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (36.8) and 38th in blocks (4.6).

Said Nelson-Ododa: “We know that they’re a scrappy team, especially defensively. We’ll definitely have to play our game on the offensive and defensive end, really just execute the little things.”

They’re fueled by one of the nation’s better two-way players in senior guard Aari McDonald, who won Pac-12 Player of the Year and shared top defensive honors with Stanford’s Anna Wilson. McDonald is averaging 20.3 points and has drawn comparisons to NBA great Allen Iverson.

Williams will be tasked with guarding her.

“She’s a great player,” Williams said. “She’s quick, she can shoot, she can get to the basket, she can create space for herself. She’s a handful, and we know that coming into the game. It’s going to take a total team defensive effort to contain her.”

Westbrook, who played AAU with McDonald, called her one of the NCAA’s fastest players.

“She’s super smart, super intelligent, and she does a lot for her team,” she said. “She really does it all for her team, gets to the basket, draws fouls, has a pull-up game. She’s all around just a great guard, does it all for them.”

The Huskies, understanding of the moment, are determined to stop her.

“The job isn’t done, but just to be in the position that we are, 13 straight Final Fours … it’s unbelievable,” Westbrook said. “We’ve worked so hard to get here. Everything we’ve gotten we worked for.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour