BRIDGEPORT— After a slow and sluggish opening three minutes, the No. 1 seed Huskies were able to shoot themselves out of a slump and into their 12th straight Elite 8 with their 86-71 victory over the No. 4 seed UCLA Bruins. Sophomore Napheesa Collier led the UConn offense with a game-high 27 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers while junior Gabby Williams once again filled out the stat sheet scoring 17 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out six assists.
Following the upset of No. 3 seed Maryland at the hands of fellow Pac-12 team Oregon, the Bruins came out with more energy and hustle then UConn as they jumped out to a 9-2 lead behind an early basket by junior Jordan Canada and a deep 3-pointer by redshirt senior Kari Korver. With the Bruins leading by seven early in the first, the Huskies started to settle in once junior Kia Nurse was able to connect on a deep three and Collier was able to finish a layup off of a backdoor cut.
“We like to say that, you know, to play with us, it's a marathon, it’s not a sprint” Williams said about the slow start. “They came out hard. They came out aggressive. But there was 37 minutes left to play.”
UConn went on a 7-0 to tie the game and kept on cruising, finishing the quarter on a 13-4 run, behind another three pointer by Nurse and a corner three by senior Saniya Chong. At the end of the first, they led 22-13 as four UConn starters had four points and Nurse led with six.
The Huskies remained hot in the second as they shot 11-15 from the field, as Collier and sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson had 10 points each in the quarter. In the last few minutes of the quarter both teams hit five 3-pointers in a row as Korver hit two, Collier and Samuelson hit one and junior Paulina Hersler hit her only three of the game, providing a thrilling first-half finish that ended with UConn leading 48-31.
“This is the hardest time of the year to be a good defensive team because all the bad offensive teams are home. They're not playing,” head coach Geno Auriemma said.
Korver was 5-11 from three point land in the game as she finished with 15 points as Nurse for the third straight game led the way with three made 3-pointers. Nurse on the day was 3-5 from the field as she hit two in the first and her third and final field goal midway through the fourth.
The Bruins only had four turnovers through two quarters and finished with six total, the lowest for an UConn opponent this season.
“I thought we matched up okay,” UCLA head coach Cori Close said. “I knew we would have to be absolutely locked in. Those hedges and pick and rolls either off the stagger screens where you have to hedge for a second to buy time for the person coming off, or on the screen and rolls.”
In the second half the lead was as big as 20 but UCLA was able to cut it 12 several times. In the third quarter, the Bruins outscored UConn 21-17 as Canada had 10 points in the quarter while Williams led the Huskies with seven.
“When we got up 20, it wasn't going to be just roll over and get up a bunch. That doesn't happen generally at this time of the year,” Auriemma said.
The Bruins finished the third on a 7-0 run as the duo of Canada and junior Monique Billings poised a problem to the Huskies all day. Canada had a team-high 20 points and a game-high 11 assists while Billings had 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Her 16 rebounds are the most for an UConn opponent his season as she was also able to add one block and two steals in 39 minutes of play.
“It was tough. It was a challenge” Williams said about matching up with Billings. “Usually, you know, I try to use my athleticism as my advantage. I couldn't really do that tonight. So I had to find another way to, you know, guard her to match up with her.”
In the fourth, the Huskies were able to outscore UCLA 21-19 as both teams shot poorly from the field and the three point line. Samuelson was able to hit a free throw with 23 seconds to go in the game as she was held without a field goal for the second half, as she finished with 15 points, six rebounds and a game-high six turnovers.
With the victory, Auriemma notched his 112th overall NCAA win tying him with former Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt for most all-time. The Huskies will next play Monday, March 27 at 7 p.m. against No. 10 Oregon, as they look to reach their 10th-straight Final Four.
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.