For the 24th straight season, the UConn Huskies will be playing in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, as they downed the No. 8 seed Syracuse Orange in a rematch of last year’s national championship game by a score of 94-64. Leading the way for the Huskies was junior Kia Nurse, who hit an incredible nine 3-pointers en route to a total of 29 points, while junior Gabby Williams had 23 points, six rebounds and five assists and sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson had 23 points overall.
In both of the first two games of this year’s tournament, three Huskies scored 20 or more points: Samuelson, Nurse and Williams were each able to eclipse the 20 point mark before the end of the third quarter.
“Our ball movement was incredible. We knew they were going to press, we knew they were going to trap and [be] coming from a lot of different areas, but like I said, we have five good ball handlers out on the floor,” head coach Geno Auriemma said.
All three players were able to help UConn get on track early, with Samuelson opening the scoring on an inside bucket, while Nurse and Williams scored the next two baskets. Syracuse was able to hang around early. Seniro Briana Day had six points on 3-5 shooting in the first half, but the Orange found themselves trailing 28-11 after the end of the first due to a 7-0 UConn run.
The Orange sought to press the Huskies from the tip, but Williams, Nurse and senior Saniya Chong were able to escape the pressure and lead the team to easy transition buckets. At the end of the first quarter, the Huskies had 11 assists on 12 made field goals, and Chong had six assists and zero turnovers. As a team, UConn finished with 33 made baskets and 30 assists, while the Orange had 26 made field goals and a lowly eight assists.
“They have five players who can move the ball and make great decisions, which make them a very tough team to guard,” commented Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman. “They can score from all five spots on the floor, so it is tough to guard them.”
Nothing changed going into the second, as Nurse hit her fourth 3-pointer of the game to open the quarter and the Huskies dropped 29 in the second on 60 percent shooting from the field. In the first two quarters, Nurse was 8-10 from behind the arc, overshadowing freshman Crystal Dangerfield, who had five assists in 10 minutes of play, and Williams, who had a quiet 15 points and two steals.
The only challenge to the Huskies early on turned out to be senior Alexis Peterson, who was 7-12 in the first with 16 points, but had five turnovers. Senior Isabella Slim had to sit with three early fouls, and freshman Gabby Cooper had only one shot and zero points in 20 minutes of play.
Peterson was able to keep it going for stretches in the second half. She finished with 25 points, but Cooper and senior Brittney Sykes struggled from behind the arc. They combined to shoot 5-12 from behind the arc, while the Orange were a collective 8-20. The Huskies were able to dominate from behind the arc, going 12-23 from deep, with a majority of that coming from the hot shooting of Nurse.
“It was a double whammy for Syracuse, we took away their biggest weapon, the three, and we really hurt them with the three,” Auriemma said. “It ended up being great for us both ways.”
In the third quarter, the Huskies yet again dropped 29 points on 10-12 from the field, and sophomore Napheesa Collier was a perfect 6-6 for 13 points. She finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals on the day and 8-9 shooting from the field.
“Those first three quarters, I just thought that we were as about as good as we could be in a lot of the areas you need to be good in this time of year,” commented Auriemma.
Nurse cooled off in the second half, taking only two shots and hitting one 3-pointer. The lone 3-pointer was the highlight of the night. Right when it went off her hands, I immediately said nope, but when you are hot, you are hot, and she banked it in and finished with a game-high 29 points, beating the self-proclaimed best backcourt in women’s basketball.
“It allows you to play with a chip on your shoulder, and at the same time for us, we like to prove it with the way that we play,” replied Nurse on playing the Syracuse backcourt. “Today it was not a one person show, where one person had to shut down Peterson or Sykes, it was a team defensive effort.”
Matt Kren is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.