In what could be remembered as a footnote in the history books, the last game before the UConn women’s basketball team’s shot at a legendary 100th-consecutive win, the Huskies took on the SMU Mustangs at Gampel Pavilion Saturday afternoon for their second matchup of the year. The first time around, UConn got off to an incredible start in the first quarter and never looked back. Although it took a lot more work the second time around, the Huskies ultimately blew the Mustangs away in an 83-41 victory for their 99th consecutive victory.
Compared to the first meeting against SMU, the Huskies had a relatively slow start to the game on both ends of the court. In fact, the Mustangs trailed 14-12 with four minutes remaining in the first quarter, far better than the 26-2 showing in the first quarter on Jan. 14. However, an 8-2 run to end the quarter, fueled by multiple fast break buckets by Katie Lou Samuelson, gave UConn a slightly more comfortable 22-14 lead.
The second quarter started out much like the first for the Huskies, with some missed shots and a few defensive lapses. One mistake closing out by Saniya Chong led to a three-pointer from MiKayla Reese. Chong later redeemed herself with a steal and a bucket on the breakaway, but the Mustangs would hang within 12 points heading into the TV timeout. After the timeout, however, UConn came out with the intensity that they’ve been playing with all season and took over the game like one would expect.
“[Coach Auriemma] just talked about our defense and how we had to play better defense and get everything to feed off of that,” Samuelson said. “Once we started focusing on that, that’s kind of where everything translated into transition points and that really gets us going once we play defense as well as we do.”
Samuelson, who played despite feeling under the weather for the last few weeks, was a huge part of the 15-3 run that ended the half. The sophomore made several buckets in the last few minutes of the second, including a huge corner three to give the Huskies a 38-22 lead. She followed that up with an incredible pass to find junior guard Kia Nurse after an SMU turnover. Nurse would make the bucket and the ensuing free throw on the and-one. Just before the half, Samuelson almost scored on an otherworldly left-handed circus shot, but instead made both free throws after being fouled to close the half with a 44-22 lead. She would finish with a game-high 22 points on 8-13 shooting, including 3-6 from three.
“The thought process was to get [Samuelson] in the game and let’s see what she looks like,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “She came to me before the game and she said, ‘I want to play.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re going to play.’ Then she goes, ‘No I mean I want to play, I don’t want to just go out there for a couple minutes.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll see what you act like. If you act like you only want to play a couple minutes, you’ll play a couple minutes. If you act like you want to play a lot, I’ll play you a lot.’”
The Huskies picked up the third quarter right where they left off in the second, starting the frame with a 14-4 run. Samuelson, Nurse and Chong each hit threes, while Napheesa Collier’s and Gabby Williams’ post presence gave UConn a huge boost on offense, propelling them to a 58-26 lead. Collier finished the game with a double-double, tallying 10 points and 13 rebounds, six of which were on the offensive glass. Williams would be just short of her own double-double, scoring 11 points and bringing in nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end.
“I think the thing that gives us an edge [against South Carolina] is that Gabby and Napheesa have really played against every different type of post player and they’ve been successful. So we have that confidence in them, that they are going to be able to do what they do, no matter who we play against,” said Samuelson.
A fourth quarter with most of the starters on the bench resting for Monday was more of the same from UConn. Natalie Butler provided eight points and three boards off the bench, while Molly Bent tallied five assists in just nine minutes of action as the Huskies glided to win No. 99.
Next up, UConn will take on the No. 6 team in the nation in the South Carolina Gamecocks. The game will be at Gampel Pavilion at 9 p.m. Monday night and will be broadcast by ESPN with full coverage as the Huskies go for their 100th consecutive win.
“With each game that’s been going on and on and on, you know [a loss] is getting closer. So more people should start coming to our games, because you want to be here when that L comes,” Auriemma said. “You could say, ‘I was there.’ This place should be packed Monday night.”