UConn’s matchup against the Tennessee Volunteers brought a lot of firsts for the young Huskies.
It was the first time they were hopping on a plane for an away game. It was the first time they would be playing in front of a crowd of thousands in Knoxville’s Thompson Boling Arena. It was the first time Evina Westbrook would return to the school she spent her first two seasons with. It was the first time UConn lost an opening quarter of basketball. And it was the first time the Huskies were tested to see if they had what it took to grind out a close game. Spoiler alert: They did.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Huskies (9-0, 7-0 Big East) were able to do exactly what they’ve done all year: walk away with another win, this time a 67-61 victory, put together by a complete team effort.
“You don’t lose the game on one play, people love to say that,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “But one big play can win you the game and we had some really big plays by all those guys. By Christyn, shots that E[vina] made, a couple rebounds that Liv got late there, everybody made some contributions. So it was good to see them do that cuz I wasn’t sure what we would do the first time we were faced with [a game] where nothing goes right.”
Auriemma was right. Nothing was going right for his Huskies early on and UConn found themselves behind after each of the first three quarters. But all it took was a few defensive stops, a couple big rebounds and the biggest shot of freshman Paige Bueckers young career to seal the victory in the Huskies’ closest call this season.
From the tip, Tennessee’s (9-3, 3-1 SEC) game plan was clear: Feed sharpshooter Rae Burrell outside and the 6-foot-5 Tamari Key down low. For UConn, however, the plan wasn’t so obvious.
The Huskies hoisted 10 3-pointers in the first, five of which came from their frontcourt of Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aubrey Griffin. Bueckers and Christyn Williams would also get some shots up and in, but UConn ended the quarter shooting 5-15 from the field, 2-10 from deep, and down 16-17, the first time they found themselves behind at the break.
The offense picked up a bit in the second quarter with Westbrook, the former Vol, scoring eight of her 15 points in the period. But even with that contribution from one of the teams’ leaders, missed opportunities took over the storyline, as the Huskies went into the half just 5-12 from the free throw line and still found themselves down one.
After halftime, UConn switched into a 2-3 zone in an attempt to shut down Tennessee’s offense, and while it worked and the Vols scored just 14 points in the quarter, the Huskies’ struggles from the field and free throw line continued. Williams would score six of her game-high 20 points in the third, but all other Huskies combined for just five points in UConn’s lowest scoring quarter of the year (11). Tennessee went into the final break up four and with all signs pointing toward them pulling away. But Geno and co. had other plans.
Enter the fourth quarter.
Williams started things off with a big 3-pointer to cut the Vols lead to one, seemingly the hundredth time that evening the game was within a point. After trading buckets to tie the score, Williams drove hard to the basket on a one-on-one break. She would miss the layup but Bueckers was there for the putback, just her second make on an otherwise woeful shooting night.
Tennessee tied the score at 52 but as she has done all season, Westbrook was there on the other end to hit a huge 3-pointer and give the Huskies back the advantage. Auriemma spoke on the importance of Westbrook’s shooting in this game.
“I thought she was unbelievable,” Auriemma said. “She made some clutch, clutch shots … It couldn’t have been easy coming back here … but I couldn’t have asked her to play any better for sure.”
On the Vols ensuing possession, Bueckers, who had three steals on the night, got in the passing lane, forced a turnover and exploded with emotion as the whistle blew for the under-five media timeout. From then on it felt as though UConn was in control of a game the Vols had momentum of for 35 minutes.
Out of the timeout, Westbrook hit another huge 3-pointer, her third of the evening, to extend the Huskies’ lead to six. But with 4:37 left on the clock, momentum nearly swung back in the Vols’ favor.
Running the break, Bueckers cut across the paint and found Williams down low with a beautiful pass that led to an open layup and UConn’s lead opening up to nine, their largest of the game. Tennessee called a timeout, but on the play Bueckers appeared to roll her ankle and was visibly limping to the bench in clear pain. With 3:12 left, despite trying to play through it, Auriemma was forced to pull Bueckers from the game. In her absence, Tennessee got the lead back down to two and Auriemma made the call to put her back in, but not on his own.
“When Paige sprained her ankle and she came out, we got a sub in,” Auriemma said. “She wanted to go back in [but] I wasn’t completely sure yet, and she basically said ‘put me back in’ and the other coaches were yelling ‘put her back in’ so it was a no-brainer really.”
With 30 seconds left and the shot clock winding down, the Vols were locking up UConn on the perimeter. Williams attempted to drive but was met with three Tennessee players. Her kick to Westbrook set her up too far from the 3-point line to pull the trigger, but sitting just a few feet away from her was a wide open, one-legged Bueckers.
On the night, Bueckers was just 2-13 from the field and 0-5 from 3-point land. While she was contributing in other ways with eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals, this was not the night Bueckers had imagined as her first game in front of fans. But what happened next was.
Westbrook dished it over to Bueckers who hoisted the ball up with one second left on the shot clock. And it splashed. Her first three of the game came when it mattered the most as UConn suddenly found themselves up five with under 30 seconds to go.
The Vols would miss on one end, send Westbrook to the line for two on the other and just like that the game was over. UConn walked away with their toughest and likely one of the strangest wins of their season, but above all else it was a win. But that’s what this Huskies team has come to expect at this point, win at all costs.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, they have no time to celebrate this one, as they have another game right around the corner. This time they’ll be facing off against conference foe Georgetown, whose lone win of the season came back in December against Butler. The game is on Saturday Jan. 23, with tipoff set for 2 p.m.
This story was updated at 10:05 a.m. on Jan. 22, 2021 to include quotes from Geno Auriemma.