In a hotly contested matchup between No. 3 UConn and the No. 19 Razorbacks, the Huskies scored 87 points on 55% shooting from the field and 52% from 3-point land, including a career-high 27 points from freshman Paige Bueckers.
On most nights, this would be enough to see UConn (10-1, 8-0 Big East) walk away with a win, but not against Arkansas.
Spearheaded by a season-high 37 points from Chelsea Dungee, the Razorbacks (12-6, 2-5 SEC) got whatever they wanted against the Huskies defense, spoiling Christyn Williams’ homecoming game and handing UConn their first setback of the season, a 90-87 loss.
“Just being able to guard your man, we have to do a much better job of,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “That’s obviously a big area of concern for us going forward. When teams miss a lot of shots you get lulled into thinking you’re a very good defensive team [but] tonight they didn’t miss a lot of shots and it showed.”
Heading into this one, Dungee was the player the Huskies had to keep an eye out for. The redshirt senior was averaging 21.6 points on the year, and through the first half UConn had done an alright job of keeping her contained to the tune of 15 points on 6-11 shooting. The Huskies even had a lead heading into halftime, up 43-41 behind 12 points from Williams, but the second half looked a bit different.
“Just being able to guard your man, we have to do a much better job of.”
A 13-point clinic from Dungee in the third saw the Razorbacks score 31 points — the most UConn has allowed in a quarter this season — on 70% from the field and 86% from 3-point territory and gave Arkansas a 10-point lead heading into the final quarter. And despite the Huskies’ attempt at another fourth quarter comeback, the shooting of Dungee and Amber Ramirez proved too much as UConn dropped their first game of the year.
But whereas the Razorbacks’ output came almost exclusively from their upperclassmen — Ramirez and Dungee combined for 59 points — the Huskies’ veterans really struggled in this one.
Williams got off to a hot start in her return to Arkansas, scoring 12 points in the first half, but would shoot just 2-8 in the second half including 0-3 from the free throw line and end the game with 16 points on 7-17 shooting.
Even tougher for UConn was the absence of Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who played just 20 minutes and was rendered almost ineffective. Averaging 16 points and eight boards coming into this game, Nelson-Ododa was held to two points and two rebounds, both season-lows. She was able to tie her season-high with three blocks, but the Huskies will need more out of her on the offensive end if they hope to compete against bigger opponents come March.
The lone bright spot for UConn’s leaders was Evina Westbrook, who continued her excellent play, racking up 19 points, six boards and seven assists including a couple huge 3-pointers in the second half.
“I thought Evina was really really good the whole game,” Auriemma said. “That’s the best I’ve seen her play since she’s been at Connecticut in every facet of the game. I thought she was terrific.”
But the biggest and most exciting takeaway for Auriemma — despite the loss — is the play of his freshmen. Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, Nika Muhl and Mir McLean all played huge minutes and did a great job of keeping UConn in the game while the juniors struggled.
Bueckers didn’t skip a beat in her first game back since spraining her ankle against Tennessee, scoring a team-high 27 points — including 15 points in the final quarter — to go along with two rebounds and two assists. Meanwhile Muhl — who started the Huskies’ last game with Bueckers out — carried that confidence over into this one, scoring a career-high eight points, grabbing three rebounds and adding two assists.
In the frontcourt, Edwards checked in in the second quarter after Nelson-Ododa got into some foul trouble and went to work, scoring six points and hauling in four rebounds. Unfortunately for the Huskies she would foul out after just 13 minutes of play, but next up in line was McLean who provided her signature spark. The freshman hit her first career 3-pointer, grabbed three boards and drew two key charges in the fourth to keep UConn within striking distance.
“They gave us a whole new spark, especially on defense,” Westbrook said of the freshmen’s contributions. “They brought a lot of energy and in the fourth quarter we needed it badly. They stepped up huge for us, making plays, taking charges [and] just being really aggressive. I couldn’t have asked more [of] them.”
The Huskies will look to bounce back this weekend when they travel to Chicago for a rematch against No. 17 DePaul. UConn won the first meeting against the Blue Demons with five players scoring in double figures and will look to repeat their dominant effort and get back on track. The game is set for Sunday Jan. 31 with tip at 1 p.m. and can be viewed on Fox.