In the first meeting between UConn and the Butler Bulldogs back in December, veteran leadership from the likes of Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa led the Huskies to their 103-35 rout. But behind some career-highs and broken records, it was freshmen Paige Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards taking over in the rematch, carrying UConn (20-1-17-0 Big East) to a 97-68 win against their conference foe to wrap up their road trip with a perfect 5-0 record.
Head coach Geno Auriemma had nothing but good things to say about the freshmen’s play in their recent away stretch.
“When you watch Aaliyah play, you’re impressed with her work ethic, how hard she competes, how aggressive her mindset is and her competitiveness every possession,” Auriemma said. “She just plays the game the way big guys are supposed to play. And Paige and Nika have done a great job with the ball.”
Contrary to what many believed after the Huskies beat Butler by 68 in their first meeting, the Bulldogs kept themselves firmly in the game through the first quarter and half on the backs of some incredible shooting from deep. After going just 6-24 on 3-pointers in their first matchup, deep balls were raining for Butler in the rematch, as they hit 10-21 from three through the first half alone.
But despite the Bulldogs shooting the lights out and even holding the lead on a couple different occasions, UConn still found themselves ahead with a 14-point lead through two quarters, and Bueckers first broken record of the night.
On a pass to Evina Westbrook midway through the second quarter, Bueckers earned her 124th assist on the year, passing Renee Montgomery and Pam Webber for sole possession of most assists in a freshman season. Auriemma praised Bueckers’ pass-first mentality and maturity on the court despite only being a freshman.
“If somebody told you she was a senior you wouldn’t be surprised,” Auriemma said. “She handles and ball [and] sees the floor like one, and for her to be doing it at this young age [and] to have someone that would rather pass it to you and you score than they score, that’s truly enjoyable to watch and it’s really old school.”
At halftime, Bueckers and Westbrook led the Huskies in the scoring department with 13 and 12 points respectively, but on the rise was Edwards, who tallied seven points, four boards and three rejections in the second quarter alone. But even with those impressive numbers, fans had no idea what was in store for the second half.
Shots stopped falling for Butler in the second — they shot 28% from the field — and even Bueckers and Westbrook cooled off in the second, going a combined 4-18 from the floor, but Edwards was just getting started.
Using her height and strength to her advantage, the freshman grabbed miss after miss for the Huskies, hauling in six offensive rebounds in the final two quarters alone. And on the rare occasion she wasn’t able to grab the board, Edwards was always out on the fastbreak, opening plenty of opportunities for Bueckers to find her. After the game, Bueckers said Edwards does all the dirty work and that she loves having her as a teammate.
“I really enjoy playing with Aaliyah,” Bueckers said. “Tonight, where I went 4-12 from three she probably got like seven of the rebounds off my missed shots, so just knowing that even if I miss, good things are gonna happen out of it [is huge]. She makes it really nice to play with, the way she runs the floor, the way she hustles and plays on both sides of the ball.”
Unbeknownst to the freshmen duo, was that Edwards received Bueckers’ second record-breaking assist of the night. There were multiple occasions where Bueckers fed Edwards on the fastbreak, but in the fourth quarter Bueckers was able to find her teammate for her 13th and record-breaking 14th assist of the night. The record was previously held by Renee Montgomery in a 13-assist effort back in 2008 and will likely be held by Bueckers for a long time.
Edwards’ work paid dividends for the Huskies as their lead continued to slowly grow throughout the second half, and her 24 points and 14 rebounds both represent career highs that should give the freshman and Auriemma plenty of confidence heading into March.
“You saw the real Aaliyah Edwards today,” Auriemma said. “That’s her as a competitor. She gives us a dimension that we didn’t have last year. She gives us a presence that we didn’t have last year. So it makes winning games a little easier when you’ve got somebody that’s gonna work that hard at both ends of the floor.”
Despite combining for over 40 points for the second time this season, Bueckers and Edwards were not the only contributors in the win. Westbrook (16), Williams (15) and Nelson-Ododa (11) also got into double figures, while Aubrey Griffin wreaked her usual havoc on the glass and Nika Muhl added nine points and five assists of her own. These efforts across the board are exactly what Auriemma hopes to see with the Big East and NCAA tournaments right around the corner.
“You have to get contributions from a lot of people at this time of the year,” Auriemma said. “You can’t just think that one person is gonna be able to carry you.”
Butler’s 68 points was the most UConn has conceded to a conference opponent this season, so there is some work to be done on the defensive end heading into Monday’s matchup against a tough Marquette team, but when the offense is rolling like it was in this one, it feels like nothing can stop the Huskies.