In a matchup that was advertised almost exclusively as a meeting between freshmen phenoms Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark, neither of them stole the headlines.
Both had impressive games, with Clark dropping a team-high 21 points while Bueckers flirted with a triple double, but it was upperclassmen Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa who came up big and carried UConn to their 92-72 win over the Hawkeyes.
“I told the team before the game, ‘In all these matchups of players that get all the hype, it usually comes down to somebody else and something else,’” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “And I think our defense was really good when it had to be, and Christyn, Evina and Olivia … our three juniors were amazing.”
Both teams came out of the gate a little jumpy, letting the nerves surrounding what was many of their first trips to the Sweet 16 get the best of them. But not Evina Westbrook.
Through the tournament’s first two games, the junior was averaging just seven points, happy to do more of the dirty work that may not show up on the stat sheet. But in a game where both teams struggled to get points on the board early, Westbrook was more than willing to get herself in the scoring column.
With the Huskies holding a 10-8 lead, Westbrook stroked two beautiful 3-pointers to extend UConn’s lead and up her point total to eight in the quarter. For freshman Bueckers, this is what she and the team have come to expect out of one of their leaders.
“Obviously E does everything for this team,” Bueckers said. “Rebounds, assists, passing, defense, scoring, just anything we need her to do she’s gonna do it and she’s gonna do it to the best of her ability. When anybody’s slacking, she’s gonna pick up for us.”
Westbrook did much more than just score as Bueckers alluded to, and finished the game with 17 points — her most since Jan. 28 — on just nine shots, a career-high 10 assists and nine rebounds to go along with some stellar defense.
But whereas the first quarter belonged to Westbrook, the second was the Christyn Williams show.
Scoring on all three levels, the junior looked as impressive as she has all year en route to a 14-point quarter. She looked confident driving into the lane, knocked down a couple 3-pointers and turned tough D into even tougher offense. To say she was dominant is an understatement.
“Today, she looked like the Christyn Williams that we saw when we were recruiting her,” Auriemma said. “A kid that can make shots from everywhere, can make shots at the basket, from the 3-point line, can attack you in transition. And she was guarding one of the toughest players in America to guard, so I thought this was the best game that Christyn Williams has probably played in her career.”
Williams would finish with a game-high 27 points, just two short of her career high she set earlier in the year. But beyond her impressive offense, she also locked up the nation’s top scorer like few have been able to do all season.
Sure, Clark scored 21 points in the game, but it took her 21 shots to get there, with many being tightly contested by the junior. Williams said the turning point for her becoming this team’s best defensive guard came back against their matchup versus St John’s, and since then she has prided herself on being that lockdown perimeter defender for the Huskies.
“I have embraced my role on this team as a defensive stopper, [but] that hasn’t always been the case …” Williams said. “Last year we had Crystal Dangerfield guarding the best guard on the other team, so I didn’t really have as much responsibility on the defensive end. So as the season [has gone] on I kind of got used to embracing this role and being aggressive on both ends of the floor.”
Earlier in the year Auriemma said that if they could get these kinds of performances out of Williams they would be in contention for the title, a statement that held true after today’s win.
While Williams and Westbrook each had statement games, the unsung hero of the matchup was Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who despite finishing with just four points, worked as the defensive anchor on the interior while the guards worked on the outside.
“Liv was really out there being that rock, being that glue for us tonight,” Westbrook said. “[She was] on the boards like crazy, boxing their big kid out and stopping her. Just being super physical down there with her which makes our job a lot easier. Liv was doing Liv things and that’s what she’s great at.”
Nelson-Ododa racked up 11 rebounds by the end of the game, including six on the offensive glass, and would finish third on the team in assists with a career-high seven, making her an impact player on both ends of the floor even when she wasn’t scoring.
At the final buzzer, UConn’s trio of juniors combined for 48 points, 24 rebounds and 19 of the team’s season-high 30 assists. A matchup against No. 2 Baylor in the Elite 8 brings a tougher challenge for this Huskies group, but if Williams, Westbrook and Nelson-Ododa can lead the team like they did in this one, there are few teams who can matchup against them.