SAN ANTONIO — Paige Bueckers deserves every bit of the hype.
The freshman phenom scored 10 of her game-high 28 points during a decisive, 19-0 fourth-quarter run Monday night, as top-seeded UConn escaped a bruising battle with defending champion Baylor with a 69-67 win.
UConn advanced to its 13th consecutive Final Four – the last time it missed, in 2007, Bueckers was 5 – where the Huskies will play the winner of Arizona-Indiana on Friday night.
DiJonai Carrington, who carried the second-seeded Bears all night, almost pulled the game off single-handedly, making a pair of free throws with 19 seconds left to cut UConn’s lead to 68-67. Christyn Williams missed both free throws at the other end and NaLyssa Smith snagged the rebound.
Carrington tried to put up a jumper with a second left, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa appeared to hit her in the face. But there was no call, ending Baylor’s chances.
“What’d you see?” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said when someone asked what she saw on the play. Told it looked like a foul, Mulkey responded, “Then write it like that. You don’t need a quote from me.
“One kid hits her in face and one kid hits her on elbow,” Mulkey added.
After they were announced as regional champs, the Huskies danced in a huddle on the court.
Carrington finished with 22 points, one of three Baylor players in double figures.
Despite being two of the country’s best programs for the last decade-plus, this was only the ninth meeting between UConn and Baylor. The Bears had won the last two – a streak not lost on UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who said Sunday he didn’t understand how Baylor was a No. 2 seed, and that he really didn’t understand how they’d been drawn into the same regional as UConn.
Auriemma’s concern was well-founded, as Baylor’s fast, physical defense dominated a young UConn squad. At one point, Baylor had a 10-3 advantage on turnovers and had turned them into 10 points. The Huskies also had no answer for Carrington, who was sublime in the first half, as the Bears established control.
But Bueckers heated up at the end of the third quarter, starting what would be a 19-0 run that gave UConn the lead for good. Bueckers had two 3-pointers during the spurt, which Williams capped with a fastbreak layup.
It didn’t help the Bears that they were without guard DiDi Richards, who left the game with 7:42 to play with what appeared to be a hamstring injury, and that Carrington was whistled for two charges during the stretch.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour