Reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers sported her uniform and swished a three. Unfortunately for the University of Connecticut Huskies, this occurred in warmups. Bueckers is getting closer to playing in-game, but she’s not quite there yet.
“I think it was maybe a month ago, she walked into the athletic trainer’s room and she had a big swollen knee,” Auriemma said. “We thought this was going to be a big setback for her. And then two days later it was gone. The kid just has this knack – she heals at her own pace. She has a meeting tomorrow with the doctor and we’ll see from there.”
“Punxsutawney Paige,” Auriemma joked. “If she sees her shadow maybe she’ll have two more weeks of rehab”
After this appetizer, the main course of UConn’s 69-38 demolition of Marquette began. The Huskies’ offense wasn’t clicking for the entire game, but their defense shined, only allowing a total of 14 points in the first half. Evina Westbrook led the way with another hyper-efficient output, notching 17 points and 5 rebounds on 6-8 shooting from the field. Olivia Nelson-Ododa contributed 10 points, six rebounds and six assists in her second double-digit effort of the month.
“I felt like going with [Nelson-Ododa] today gave us a better flow,” Auriemma said. “That was the same way it was with Evina. This is the best basketball she’s played since she got here. This is the Evina I expected when she got here.”
“It’s really just about bringing it both defensively and being more aggressive offensively, being prepared and giving what my team needs,” Westbrook mentioned.
To start the game off, Marquette’s Liza Karlen and UConn’s Nelson-Ododa traded buckets inside. Marquette answered with a pair of free throws, but Nelson-Ododa and Westbrook each got one to go inside. Lauren Van Kleunen and Antwainette Walker both got shots in the paint with 3:53 left in the period. Westbrook hit a three to take the lead, 9-8, then got a mid-range jumper. Nelson-Ododa got four more of her own to take a Husky 9-0 run into the end of the first quarter.
Jordan King wasted no time answering on the first possession of the second, but Aaliyah Edwards, Dorka Juhasz and Caroline Ducharme quickly combined for eight straight, extending the advantage to 23-10 UConn and forcing a Marquette timeout. Ducharme added another on a nice drive from the wing, but Van Kleunen finally stopped the bleeding with a short jumper. Azzi Fudd closed out the period with a backdoor cut to the layup, giving the Huskies a commanding 31-14 lead.
Edwards opened the third with a nice rejection, but nothing came of it on the other end. Karissa McLaughlin responded with a quick 5-0 run of her own and King added another deuce to force Auriemma to call a timeout. Quickly after the pause, Fudd and Westbrook each got open for a triple and Edwards dropped in a post hook. Azzi Fudd pump-faked the deep ball and hit the layup. She then got a tough and one bucket to fall to increase the advantage to 23. Van Kleunen responded with a push shot, but Westbrook fed Edwards on the backdoor cut for the easy basket. Westbrook then got back on the board with an and-one to take a 12-2 run into the fourth.
Christyn Williams splashed a three to start the third, but the majority of the damage was already done. A Fudd triple a moment later gave the Huskies a 30 point lead and soon after, Auriemma emptied his bench.
Dorka Juhasz took a hit early in the fourth quarter and got stitches, but she should be okay for the Huskies’ next game.
BIG EAST CHAMPIONS
For the ninth straight time, and 21st time in program history, UConn captured the Big East regular season championship with the win tonight.
“Winning for people who have played any sport or any type of competition is a difficult thing, ” Auriemma said. “Sometimes in Connecticut, we’ve made it look easy. It’s not easy. If you’re a freshman and this is your first time you’ve won a championship, you should be proud of it. If you’re a senior and this is your fourth time you’ve won a championship, you should be proud of it. Especially this year, I’m proud of our guys. It’s a different type of challenge this year than it was before. This was very rewarding to have this happen and it means a lot. Everyone associated with the program should be proud.”
“I think it definitely means more this season,” Nelson-Ododa noted. “The adversity we faced, having to fight for every win, means a lot more.”