Heading into last night’s matchup between the No. 2 UConn Huskies and No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks, expectations were high and Gampel was loud. Not pre-COVID loud, but loud enough where it made a difference when it mattered, and boy did it matter.
It mattered when UConn went down 14-10 after the first quarter. It mattered when the Huskies let up an 11-0 run and lost their lead with three minutes left in regulation. And it mattered the most in overtime when who else but Paige Bueckers took over and carried her team to a 63-59 win, their first in overtime since 2004.
But Bueckers wasn’t the reason UConn won this game. Sure, she hit the big shots, but it was the defensive intensity in key moments that kept the Huskies close and will be the key to success for this team going forward.
“We’re getting better [defensively], but there’s things we can’t handle,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “There’s things that we struggle with that we have to get better at, but sometimes you don’t have to be a great defensive team the whole game, but you have to be a really good defensive team during times when you have to get a stop. And tonight, when we really needed to get one, we got one.”
The first half of the game wasn’t pretty for the Huskies (14-1, 11-0 Big East), which has become a theme so far. The team shot just 12-35 from the field, 0-6 from the 3-point line and allied six assists en route to 24 first-half points.
Against a dominant offense like South Carolina’s, you’d expect the Huskies to be down, but spearheaded some unexpected heroes on the defensive end, UConn found themselves tied at 24 heading into the half. Those heroes were Nika Muhl, Aubrey Griffin and Aaliyah Edwards.
The sophomore and two freshmen were huge for the Huskies, piling up a combined four steals and five blocks in the half and were a major reason the Huskies were able to stay in the game.
“There’s something about what Nika’s doing out there that just adds to what we’re doing,” Auriemma said. “There’s something that Aaliyah’s giving you that just adds. Aubrey comes in and [she’ll] do 10 things in the first 15 seconds that she’s out there. When those guys get in the game something’s gonna happen and that’s what you want. You want players to impact the game and they certainly do that.”
Muhl is an in-your-face player who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and is even more eager to let out a patented scream of excitement. Her two steals and rejection in the first quarter were key for UConn to keep the game tight.
After missing the last two games due to injury, Griffin once again came off the bench and served as a spark plug for the Huskies, racking up two points, two steals and two rejections against an impressive South Carolina frontcourt.
What Edwards did won’t show up on a box score. Sure, she racked up six points, four rebounds and a block, but more than that she was a monster around the basket. Matched up against All-American Aliyah Boston, Edwards drew fouls, boxed out well and did everything in her power to keep possession with the Huskies.
That defensive intensity carried over into the second half, but shots began to fall for UConn and they found themselves up seven a quarter of the way through the final frame. But a timeout from South Carolina took all that momentum away for the Huskies who were held scoreless over the next five minutes and gave up an 11-0 run with just over two minutes remaining.
Enter Paige Bueckers.
Held to an almost-human 18 points thus far in the game, Auriemma put the ball in Bueckers’ hands and let her work. On consecutive possessions, Bueckers found herself one-on-one with a defender, took them on and hit the pull-up jumper to tie the game at 54. South Carolina had four chances to win the game but couldn’t finish, and the game entered overtime.
Re-enter Paige Bueckers.
The freshman phenom outscored the Gamecocks 9-5 and scored on all three levels, including a 3-pointer when it mattered most. Up 60-59, UConn was moving the ball and with the clock winding down Nelson-Ododa kicked it out to Bueckers. The freshman hoisted up the shot from 3-point land and beyond where it hit the back rim, shot eight feet in the air and dropped, sealing the deal for Bueckers and the Huskies.
“As soon as it went up like that, I had no doubt. [We] definitely just wanted to get her the ball, she was carrying us tonight. So, the main priority was to get her open, set screens for her and get her the ball.”Olivia Nelson-Ododa
But whereas fans were on the edges of their seats watching the ball hang above the rim, Bueckers’ teammates never had a doubt it was going in.
“I knew it was going in,” Olivia Nelson-Ododa said. “As soon as it went up like that, I had no doubt. [We] definitely just wanted to get her the ball, she was carrying us tonight. So, the main priority was to get her open, set screens for her and get her the ball.”
Bueckers finished the game with 31 points — her third consecutive game with at least 30 — to go with five assists and six steals, and will walk away the hero in this one, but it was a complete team effort that led the Huskies to this win.
UConn has another quick turnaround with a matchup against Seton Hall set for Wednesday, so they’ll want to take tomorrow to recover from what was surely the most exciting game the Huskies have played this year.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of David Butler / Pool Photo via AP.