They won the Big East, they won the Big East Tournament, and they earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. They’ve dominated all season, but there was work to be done. Now, that work is underway. Sunday, March 21, the UConn Huskies faced off against the No. 16 High Point Panthers and earned an emphatic 102-59 victory to send them to the next round of games.
In her first March Madness experience, freshman phenom Paige Bueckers whipped a pass into the lane to find junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa for an early 2-0 lead that the Huskies would never relinquish. The pair combined for 23 first half points to put UConn up 29-53 at the break. Unfortunately for UConn, freshman Nika Muhl, who had carved out a prominent role for herself in the starting lineup, put up a shot in the second quarter and landed awkwardly on her right ankle on the way down. She was helped off the court and did not return, a devastating blow to the Huskies.
Despite entering the second half with a 24-point deficit, the Panthers refused to quit. They came out with a determination and willed their way to an 8-7 run to open the 3rd quarter. Eventually though, the UConn defense tightened up and ultimately cruised to a 43-point victory.
By the end of the game, Bueckers had the best scoring NCAA Tournament debut of any freshman in UConn history with 24 points. She barely missed out on a double-double as she grabbed nine rebounds and added six assists, four steals and two blocks along the way. Meanwhile, Nelson-Ododa finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists of her own. The freshman-junior duo was dynamic throughout.
Bueckers wasn’t the only freshman with a sparkling tournament debut, though. 2020-21 Big East Sixth Woman of the Year Aaliyah Edwards led the team with 12 rebounds to go along with 17 points. She was a force and her energetic play earned compliments from her teammates. Nelson-Ododa said, “She was everywhere. Blocked shots, rebounds, scoring one-on-one. She did a great job.”
With head coach Geno Auriemma unable to be with the team due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, acting head coach Chris Daily improved her all-time coaching record to 11-0 with the win. Daily, when asked about her team’s play, gave an answer that would surprise someone who only looked at the scoresheet, but that would come as no surprise to those within the UConn locker room. She said, “Evina Westbrook, in my mind, was probably the best player of the game for a lot of reasons.” This is because, though Westbrook scored only 10 points, her defense was absolutely spectacular. She is the tone-setter for the ultra-young Huskies who need every ounce of leadership Westbrook can offer if they hope to win a National Championship.
According to Daily, Nika Muhl is still being evaluated, though she did use crutches to leave the court. Her teammates are worried and hopeful she can rejoin the team sooner rather than later. “We just don’t really know the details,” Nelson-Ododa said. “We’re praying that she has a very healthy and speedy recovery for the games coming up.”
UConn will advance to play the No. 8 seeded Syracuse on Tuesday, March 23 in the second round of the tournament. The time of the game has not yet been announced.