In what could serve as a preview for the Big East tournament finals, the UConn Huskies were held to their lowest point-total of the season in a tough matchup against the Golden Eagles. But thanks to some key minutes from Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards, the Huskies put together a 63-53 win to end the regular season with a perfect conference record as they prepare for the tournament next weekend.
Even though it wasn’t the final box score the team thought they’d have at the buzzer, Junior captain Nelson-Ododa said this type of game could be key for the post-season success this team wants to have.
“I think it’s good preparation, especially for the NCAA tournament where you never know what’s gonna happen,” Nelson-Ododa said. “One night could be completely different from the next game so that’s something we’re gonna have to be prepared for and I’m glad we got a taste of it now.”
With best friend and future teammate Azzi Fudd in the building, Paige Bueckers got off to a hot start, scoring nine first-quarter points and giving the Huskies (21-1, 18-0 Big East) a 22-11 lead after one. But in a matchup against Marquette’s Selena Lott, it was the Golden Eagles who came out on top, limiting the freshman phenom to just four points the rest of the way on 2-10 shooting.
Luckily, in the normally sure-handed Bueckers’ absence, it was the frontcourt duo of Nelson-Ododa and Edwards who proved vital in the win. Nelson-Ododa led all scorers with 10 at halftime with Edwards close behind at eight points in her nine first half minutes, but the two showed how dominant they can be once the second half kicked off.
A couple minutes into the third quarter, Marquette (17-5, 14-4 Big East) went on a 10-2 run to cut UConn’s lead to seven points. With the Huskies’ guards ice cold for most of the game — the backcourt of Bueckers, Nika Muhl, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook went a combined 10/37 in the game — it was Nelson-Ododa and Edwards who scored UConn’s next seven points to go on a 7-0 run of their own and get the Huskies lead back up to double digits.
After the game, Auriemma said the frontcourt was the biggest reason UConn came out of this game with a win.
“I thought in the second half Olivia and Aaliyah carried the team,” Auriemma said. “We said at halftime somebody was gonna have to step up and make some plays other than clap at Paige to shoot the ball, and I thought those two really stepped up big time.”
Bueckers opened up the scoring in the fourth for UConn, scoring her only four points of the second half in the first few minutes, but from then on, the Huskies next eight points came once again from their frontcourt.
When shots weren’t falling, it was the duo’s work on the glass that kept UConn alive in the game. Nelson-Ododa and Edwards combined for eight offensive rebounds and paved the way for the Huskies to outscore the Golden Eagles 24-7 on second-chance points, each proving vital in the 10-point win.
By the game’s end, Nelson-Ododa led all scorers with 19 points and hauled in 10 rebounds, while Edwards continued her hot stretch of games, adding 16 points and eight boards in just 22 minutes of play. Being one of the leaders of the team, Nelson-Ododa has loved the growth she has seen out of Edwards in her freshman season.
“[There’s been] tremendous growth,” Nelson-Ododa said. “Especially in the high-low or with her iso-ball, she’s a threat to other teams and she just keeps getting better and better. It’s really fun to watch her and her confidence grow and I’m really excited, especially going into the tournament, with her.”
Even more impressive than their offensive output was their work on the defensive end in what Auriemma called a really tough defensive matchup between both sides, as Nelson-Ododa racked up a season-high six blocks while Edwards tied her career-high with three steals.
More games like this one may appear in the future as competition continues to get tougher with the NCAA tournament looming, so getting contributions from other big names will only make this UConn team more dangerous.
Next up for the Huskies is a trip to the Big East Tournament where they will take on the winner of the St. John’s, Xavier game Saturday before hopefully competing in the semifinals and finals Sunday and Monday, respectively.