Forty minutes, 27 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a block. That’s what junior Christyn Williams did this Saturday, March 27 in an Elite Eight-clinching win over Iowa where she never left the floor. For all the talk of the freshman battle between UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, it was the two UConn juniors in Williams and Evina Westbrook who propelled the Huskies to a 92-72 victory.
With all eyes on Bueckers to begin the game, she had a quieter-than-usual start with only 4 points in the opening quarter. Rather, it was UConn’s emotional leader Evina Westbrook that propelled her team to a 22-18 lead with her 8 first quarter points. The second quarter however, belonged to Christyn Williams, who had spent the first quarter focusing her energy on minimizing the offensive impact of Iowa’s leading scorer, Caitlin Clark. Williams poured in a flurry of three 3-pointers to set her team up with a 49-35 lead at the half. Williams herself had 18 first half points. Iowa opened the third quarter on a mission, outscoring the Huskies 26-23 before the final frame. But from there, the Huskies’ stars took over to put the game on ice as they outscored Iowa 20-11 in the fourth quarter.
As a former No. 1 recruit out of high school, Williams has, at times, struggled to be a consistent presence for a UConn program that has their eyes perennially set on winning national championships. But so far in the NCAA Tournament, there’s been no mistaking how important Williams is to this team’s success. She entered Saturday’s game averaging 12 points, shooting 50% from both the field and 3-point range, all while being tasked with locking down the opponent’s premier scorer. Against Iowa, she poured in a playoff-high 27 points while holding Caitlin Clark to 21 points, well below her season’s average of 27. She was incredible.
Head coach Geno Auriemma noticed her dominance too, saying after the game, “I thought this is the best game that Christyn Williams has probably played in her career. No question about that … Today she looked like the Christyn Williams that we saw when we were recruiting her.”
Evina Westbrook was equally special in the win as she finished just one rebound shy of the sixth triple-double in program history. Westbrook scored 17 points with 10 assists and nine rebounds. Meanwhile, though Olivia Nelson-Ododa had a quiet scoring game (4 points), her 11 rebounds led the team and her seven assists were tied for her season-high. “Since the NCAA Tournament started, they’ve done an incredible job of being who they are supposed to be,” Auriemma said.
As great as the juniors were, the Huskies’ freshmen both had fantastic performances as well. Bueckers finished the game with 19 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, a relatively routine outing for the freshman superstar. Meanwhile, Aaliyah Edwards, in her second game as a starter, poured in 18 points of her own on 9-11 shooting. “If it wasn’t for Aaliyah Edwards, we wouldn’t be here,” Auriemma said. “I can’t even imagine what she’s gonna look like in a couple years.”
Now, with all the Huskies young and old seemingly operating at peak-performance, UConn is setting their sights on their Elite Eight opponent, the No. 2 seed Baylor Bears. UConn is 4-4- all-time against Baylor, who has won the previous two meetings between the two squads. Baylor leads the country in opponent’s field goal percentage (31.7 %) and average margin of victory (+19.7). The Bears’ leading scorer, junior forward Nalyssa Smith (18.2 points-per-game) scored 24 points on 11-11 shooting in Baylor’s 78-75 OT win over the No. 6 seed Michigan.
UConn is likely to be without freshman guard Nika Muhl for the third straight game in Monday’s matchup with Baylor as she continues to recover from an ankle injury she sustained in the opening round. Edwards, who is averaging 18 points since taking her place in the starting lineup is likely to keep that spot in her absence. The game, which is UConn’s 15th straight Elite Eight appearance, tips off at 7 p.m. Eastern.