On Thursday, Dec. 9, the No. 3 UConn women’s basketball team lost to an unranked opponent for the first time since 2012, ending a streak that lasted 239 contests. The stakes were different from their last time out as they were down Paige Bueckers and limited to just five points in the final frame. This past Saturday, they put another streak on the line, looking to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time since 1993.
Taking part in the first ever women’s game at the Never Forget Tribute Classic in New Jersey, the Huskies got out to a slow start as UCLA would lead by as much as eight in the first quarter. The Huskies only made five field goals on 17 shots and picked up the other three points at the free throw line. It almost looked as bad as the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech, but something was different about this game.
Evina Westbrook took charge in the first frame as she scored nine of the team’s 13 first quarter points. Westbrook was also a force on defense, but especially against a team like UCLA, it was going to require more than one person to get the job done.
UCLA tried everything to extend their lead over the Huskies, however, the Huskies were not going to go down without a fight. About halfway through the second quarter, Westbrook started to cool off, but Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Caroline Ducharme, making her first collegiate start, stepped up to provide more scoring opportunities.
Both were aggressive throughout the second quarter, laying down massive blocks against members of the Bruins’ frontcourt and getting massive buckets in the paint to keep their team in the fight. Led by their strong defense, the Huskies shut out the Bruins in the final three minutes of the half and cut the lead down to two as Ducharme hit a three-pointer in the final seconds to give the team some major momentum heading into the half.
For half of the third quarter, it felt like everything the Huskies tried to do, the Bruins had an answer for, whether it was with a three-pointer or a beautiful play in the paint. That seemed to be the case until the Huskies went on a 14-0 run in four minutes of play to take the lead and steadily increase the margin. For reference, UCLA was limited to just free throws in the last five minutes of the third quarter.
One player that was starting to make her mark around this time was Dorka Juhasz. Juhasz, who picked up her 1,000th career point, was one of the critical pieces leading the rally and her seven points in the third quarter gave UConn life as they headed into the final frame up 50-42.
If that was not enough to motivate the Huskies onward, then leave it to Geno Auriemma to fire this team up. With 7:44 left in the game and only up four, Westbrook got elbowed as she was getting a shot off on the breakaway. There was no call for a foul, which caused Auriemma to state his case to the referee after the ball had gone out of bounds. That was enough for a technical foul and two subsequential free throws cut the lead down to two.
Christyn Williams kept that fire with a three-pointer of her own to help spark an 11-0 Husky run that almost put this game out of reach.
Note that I said “almost,” because their 14-point lead was not yet enough to put this game away. Charisma Osborne hit three shots (two three-pointers) in the span of 20 seconds to turn a 14-point deficit into a 6-point deficit with a little under a minute to play.
Thanks to some missed free throws, UCLA cut the lead down to four and were looking to pull off a miracle upset. UConn had missed the previous five free throws, but the play that sealed the deal occurred when Jaelynn Penn sent the ball out of bounds with 30 seconds left to give UConn possession.
UConn would then use free throws from Westbrook, Williams, Juhasz and Ducharme to wrap up the first game in the Never Forget Tribute Classic by a score of 71-61.
This close win seems almost uncharacteristic for the Huskies, but that is something Auriemma is okay with.
“It’s not going to look pretty anymore,” Auriemma said. “That’s OK. We played so much pretty basketball over the years we’re entitled to play some ugly basketball.”
Juhasz was dominant throughout the entire game as she finished with 16 points, a whopping 16 rebounds and connected on every field goal attempt she made. A very solid first double-double for Juhasz on the season.
“I hope today was an indication of what she can be,” commented Auriemma, following Juhasz’s best performance as a Husky.
The scoring options came alive for the battle tested Huskies. Westbrook led the way with 17 points while Ducharme (14), Williams (11) and Nelson-Ododa (10) all scored in double figures. Westbrook was in seventh heaven as she also picked up seven rebounds and seven assists. If you were to look back on this game, you would say that the scoring was balanced over the entire duration of the game.
This game proved that although the Huskies may be down Bueckers amongst several others, they still have a lot of pieces that can lead them to victory both in front of the glass and from beyond the arc. Juhasz defined it as “who we are … We’re fighters. This game showed us we can fight back.”
The Huskies (6-2, 1-0 Big East) have a week to prepare for their match against the Louisville Cardinals in the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s showcase at the Mohegan Sun Arena. That matchup will occur on Sunday, Dec. 19, at 3:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.