In UConn’s first game of the season, it was Paige Bueckers leading the way in a win over UMass Lowell. Game 2 against Seton Hall was Christyn Williams’ time in the spotlight. But tonight, all eyes were on Olivia Nelson-Ododa, as her 9-9 performance led the undefeated Huskies to an 80-47 win over conference rival Creighton.
“When Liv is calm and she’s patient and she’s allowing the game to come and not getting caught up in what happened [in] the last play, she can do a lot,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “We just saw a little bit of what she’s capable of doing.”
The game plan in this one for UConn (3-0, 2-0 Big East) was to suffocate the Bluejays (2-4, 1-1 Big East) with their defense, and needless to say after they allowed just 12 points in the entire first half, it went according to that plan.
The Huskies got out to another early lead in this one, holding Creighton scoreless for the first three minutes of the game while three different UConn players got themselves on the board. A 7-2 run by Creighton halfway through gave the Huskies a little scare, but those would be the only points they would score in the period. The highlight of the quarter came at its end when UConn worked as cohesively as a defensive unit as we have seen them, forcing one of three shot clock violations they would throughout the contest.
Defense has been a major point of emphasis on this team from top to bottom, and in the 12 quarters they have played thus far, they have held the opponent to under 10 points in half of them. Redshirt Junior Evina Westbrook said that defensive intensity is what separates them from the rest of the field.
“I think we’re really starting to take a lot more pride into our defense and that’s been a big emphasis just on UConn basketball,” Westbrook said. “We obviously score a lot of points but we take down teams by not letting them score a lot of points on us.”
UConn’s defense carried over into the second quarter, and as Nelson-Ododa got a rest it was sophomore Aubrey Griffin stepping up for the Huskies. Since her freshman year, Griffin has served as a high-energy spark plug for this team, and that was no different in this one. Griffin scored four points, grabbed five boards and sent back a shot in her 10 minutes played in the second. But above all that she played hounding and harassing defense against Creighton and was a major reason they only scored five points in the quarter.
The Huskies also struggled a bit offensively in the second, but as was the case against Seton Hall Tuesday, they — and more specifically Nelson-Ododa — found their touch in the second half.
From the tip Creighton has been doubling the much-larger Nelson-Ododa down low, but if the 6-foot-5 forward is able to find her stroke from the outside like she did in this one, there is seemingly no stopping her. ONO hit shots from the post, mid-range and even hit her first career 3-pointer in a 14-point quarter in which she shot 6-6. With the lead in hand Nelson-Ododa did not see the floor in the final quarter, finishing the game with 24 points — three shy of her career-high — to go with two boards and two blocks.
Someone else who got it going was Westbrook, who went 3-3 in the quarter, ending the game with a new best scoring total of eight points in a UConn uniform.
The fourth quarter allowed fans to see appearances from freshmen Mir McLean, Piath Gabriel and Autumn Chaisson as well as a couple game-closing 3-pointers from Anna Makurat. By game’s end the Huskies had four players in double figures including Nelson Ododa (24), Williams (15), Makurat (12) and Bueckers (11). But more important than their scoring effort was the intensity they showed on the defensive end, a facet of their game that will be crucial to have rolling come March.
“In order for us to be successful, it has to start on the defensive end,” Auriemma said. “That’s who we are, that’s who we’ve always been and that’s who we have to be.”
Next up for the Huskies is another home game against Xavier who will be looking to bounce back after a surprise loss to Valparaiso Wednesday.