For the 33rd straight time, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team heard their name called on Selection Sunday, this time as a two seed in the Bridgeport Region. Which regional the Huskies were going to be selected in was a massive storyline as the season progressed. For much of the year, they hadn’t looked worthy of a two seed, yet alone one that would be getting home games until the Final Four. But recently, their complete demolition of the Big East–a league that boasts four teams–since the full squad returned, warranted a two-seed.
In their first game of the tournament, the Huskies will be playing a strong 15-seed in the Mercer Bears. The Bears have had an exceptionally strong season and ran through the Southern Conference, finishing 23-6 overall and 13-1 in conference. Mercer is also one of the hotter teams in the country, winning their past 13 games, including their last three to secure an auto-bid to the tourney.
They’ve played two games against teams that have been ranked this year. They lost at tournament six-seed Georgia by 15, holding their own in the first quarter, but losing by over 10 points in each of the middle two quarters. They also took a tough loss at home against 7 seed UCF, who is also in the Storrs quad. They once again played tight in the first quarter, but the Black Knights ultimately stretched the lead out in the final three frames to win by 14. Their other four losses came to teams that did not make the tournament: Wake Forest, Alabama, MTSU and Furman.
The clear leader of this Bears team is Amoria Neal-Tysor, who has been phenomenal this season. The undersized, 5’6’’ senior guard has averaged 17 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 steals on nearly 40% shooting from beyond the arc. Neal-Tysor was sensational during the SoCon conference tournament, averaging 26.7 points in a trio of blowout wins. Her most complete game of the season came against UNCG, where she collected 23 points, eight boards and seven assists on the way to the victory. Although a Mercer win is unlikely, if Neal-Tysor can get hot from deep, who knows?
The number two option for the Bears is Shannon Titus, a fifth year senior, who has been something of a glue guy and defensive presence throughout the season. The wing averages 2.0 steals, 1.4 blocks and 6.8 boards, all of which are team highs. Titus also gets it done on the offensive end, scoring 11.8 per game and dishing out 3.8 assists. One of her best games of the year came when she recorded a double-double against South Alabama, collecting 11 points and 11 rebounds. Titus’ fingerprints will need to be all over this game if the Bears want to keep it competitive.
For the Huskies, this has been quite the year. They started out looking reasonably good, but still missing those extra pieces to help out Paige Bueckers. This became particularly apparent when Bueckers had trouble scoring down the stretch in the Bahamas against No. 1 South Carolina and no one stepped up. Then Bueckers got injured, Azzi Fudd was shut down for a few weeks, leaving the Huskies with six players who had been getting significant minutes, plus freshman Caroline Ducharme.
They then lost two of three games while all the pieces started to get used to life post-Paige, just before COVID-19 hit and they had four games postponed. The Huskies won a few straight Big East games before traveling to Oregon and getting clobbered after star guard Christyn Williams was a late scratch with COVID. UConn strung together six straight wins as Ducharme began to emerge as a top option, helping big in victories over tournament teams DePaul and Tennessee. The biggest surprise came in a home upset against Villanova, a loss that perhaps propelled the win streak that the Huskies have taken into March Madness. This 10 game streak included the return of Bueckers, who helped UConn win the Big East Tournament and grab the two seed.
For Saturday’s game, the key will be just to get Bueckers involved more. Even in the Georgetown contest where Bueckers scored 16, she looked overly-passive and was passing more than Coach Geno Auriemma likely wanted. In a matchup that is projected to be a blowout, getting Bueckers increased confidence will be mission critical as they go into games against tougher opponents in the coming rounds.
The game will be played at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. on ABC. The winner of this game will play the winner of Florida–UCF.