The moment everyone has been waiting for is finally here. It’s time for March Madness. And call it COVID-brain or the Paige-Bueckers effect, but after earning a No. 1 seed for the first time in three years, many believe this UConn roster has what it takes to go the distance.
But a team can’t make it anywhere in this tournament if they don’t take care of business early, which is exactly what the Huskies (24-1, 18-0 Big East) will need to do when they take on the No. 16 High Point Panthers in their opening round matchup Sunday night.
UConn will have to do it without head coach Geno Auriemma as he recovers from a positive COVID-19 test he received last Sunday, but assistant head coach Chris Dailey boasts a perfect 10-0 record in Auriemma’s absences, and will be coaching a Huskies group that believes it’s playing its best basketball as of late.
Coming off a dominant performance in the Big East Tournament that saw UConn outscore their opponents 234-119, the Huskies are clicking on all cylinders at just the right time.
Paige Bueckers leads the way for this team on the offensive end, pacing UConn in points (19.7), assists (6.1) and steals (2.3) per game. Along with her Big East Freshman and Player of the Year Awards, the freshman also earned the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honor after putting up an average of 19.3 points and five assists in UConn’s three games.
Bueckers — who was also just named a finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year Award — controls this offense on a nightly basis, but even when she has off nights (which are few and far between), the Huskies have the depth to cover for her, with Christyn Williams (15.8), Olivia Nelson-Ododa (12.5) and Aaliyah Edwards (10.2) all able to put up points in bunches.
What makes this UConn team so special, however, is their defense.
In their last 14 games since losing against Arkansas back in late January, the Huskies have given up more than 60 points to opponents just three times while holding opponents under 50 eight times. This is in large part due to the defensive prowess of Williams and Nelson-Ododa.
Williams has established herself as one of the better on-ball defenders in the Big East and perhaps the nation, holding St. John’s, Villanova and Marquette’s top scorers to a combined 12 points on 5-33 shooting in the conference tournament. Auriemma lauded Williams’ effort, saying the Huskies are a championship team if the junior can continue to play defense like that.
And on the rare occasion players get by Williams, Nelson-Ododa is there to clean up the mess. Leading UConn in rebounds (7.8) and blocks (1.8), the junior has proven herself to be one of the best rim protectors in the country, forming an impenetrable force when combined with Williams’ perimeter D. Both will need to be clicking against a red-hot High Point team.
The Pirates have won nine of their last 10 games — including a Big South Tournament win that earned them the No. 16 — scoring at least 70 points in eight of them. On the offensive end they are led by Skylar Curran, who leads the team in scoring (17.9) and rebounds (7.2), while Jenson Edwards paces the team on defense with just under a steal per game.
Both offenses have the ability to get rolling early — High Point puts up over 72 points per game — but the Pirates tallest active player stands at just 6-foot-2, so look for UConn to take control of the interior with 6-foot-5 Nelson-Ododa and 6-foot-3 Edwards running the show.
This game will serve as a fine test for the Huskies as they attempt to make a run toward national title No. 12. Tipoff for this one is set for 8 p.m. Sunday night and can be viewed on ESPN.