ALBANY – The UConn women’s basketball team was outscored 39-32 in the second half of its Sweet 16 matchup with Duke. Fortunately for the Huskies, they had built a substantial lead in the first half and were able to cruise to their 13th consecutive Elite Eight appearance.
UConn (34-0) got off to a quick start, opening the game on a 7-0 run over the first minute of play to force a quick Duke timeout. The Blue Devils (24-9) outscored the Huskies 14-13 over the quarter’s remaining nine minutes to cut UConn’s lead to 20-14 at the break.
“If we hold somebody to 14 points in a quarter, we think that we did a pretty good job,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “And then we try to figure out what are we not doing on the offensive end that’s causing us some problems. Tonight it happened to be when do we take that wide-open shot that we got, off the first pass, second pass or third pass? When you’re our guys, they get very anxious.”
Gabby Williams had four of her game-high six assists in the opening quarter. Playing in her final NCAA Tournament, the senior forward stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals.
Williams drew a comparison to UConn legend Maya Moore from Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie after Saturday’s win. Auriemma was more impressed with Williams and fellow senior Kia Nurse’s ability to lead their team during their final NCAA Tournament run.
“We’re fortunate that our two seniors are two of the better defensive players in the country…” Auriemma said of Williams and Nurse. “We know we can count on those two every game. Gabby’s going to play great every game… Kia’s just one of the toughest competitors that we’ve ever had at Connecticut.”
UConn built its lead with a dominant second quarter, outscoring Duke 20-6 to go into halftime with a 40-20 lead. The Huskies held Duke to just 23.1 percent shooting in the quarter and went on an 8-0 run in the final minute of the half.
“They’re a team that plays with terrific runs,” McCallie said of the Huskies two runs that bookended the first half. “You look at the rebounding, second shots they got in transition and that spells the game pretty quickly there. They’re in terrific shape, they can play forever and that was problematic for sure.”
The UConn defense keyed in on Duke’s two leading scorers, guards Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell, for the duration of the game. The pair of fifth-year seniors, known as the “Splash Sisters,” were held to a combined 16 points on 6-17 (35 percent) shooting. Brown and Greenwell were responsible for seven of the Blue Devils’ 10 turnovers.
“I think overall, we did a great job (defensively),” UConn junior Napheesa Collier said. “Especially keeping Brown and Greenwell, guarding them with one and a half people, really staying on them. I think we did a really good job with that.”
Duke scored 31 points in the first three quarters of the game combined, but the Blue Devils rallied to drop 28 points in the fourth quarter alone. Despite UConn playing its starters for nearly the entire quarter, Duke showed that it had the offensive firepower necessary to compete with the Huskies.
Azurá Stevens played against her former team for the first time since transferring from Duke after her sophomore season. Stevens, who led Duke in points and rebounds two years ago, played just 18 minutes for the Huskies but tallied eight points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
Collier led UConn in scoring with 16 points and added 11 rebounds to record her . Collier shot just 4-8 from the free throw line and the Huskies shot 8-16 (50 percent) from the stripe as a team.
UConn’s 13-point win is its fourth-smallest margin of victory in this season of dominance. Amidst the annual tradition of pointing out the Huskies’ uneven scores, Auriemma pointed out that at this point in the NCAA Tournament, his team will be challenged much more.
“It’s not as easy as we make it look sometimes,” Auriemma said. “It’s just not easy stuff… When you’re playing against pretty good players, you shouldn’t be able to win by the numbers that we win by sometimes. And certainly not in the NCAA Tournament, that makes no sense. Not at this stage of the tournament anyway.”
“We’re just doing our part to make women’s basketball a little bit more competitive,” Auriemma said sarcastically.
The Huskies will take on an even tougher task Monday night when they take on defending national champion and No. 2-seeded South Carolina.
Josh Buser is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.