For the first time since 2019, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team played their first-round matchup at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Less than two weeks removed from winning their 20th Big East tournament title, the Huskies were at full strength, winners of 10 straight and seeking their 12th national title.
First on the road to Minnesota were the Mercer Bears, winners of 12 straight and Southern Conference Tournament Champions. Christyn Williams got things going with a three-pointer, but Mercer answered each of the Huskies’ first two buckets as Amoria Neal-Tysor and Shannon Titus converted jumpers.
Mercer was limited to five points over the next eight minutes as the Husky defense stole several possessions and crashed the glass. Despite having an eight-point lead and four rebounds from Olivia Nelson-Ododa, the turnover battle was not going in UConn’s favor.
“One of the downsides to playing like that [with a quick tempo] is you try to play a little too quickly … and make passes and make decisions that you wouldn’t ordinarily make,” head coach Geno Auriemma commented about the first quarter. “Mercer did a pretty good job of forcing some of our other guys to have to make shots early in the game.”
Azzi Fudd made her first tournament three-pointer as part of a 15-2 run to begin the second quarter, but then the entire game changed. On the very next possession, Neal-Tysor landed awkwardly on her left arm while driving to the basket and was taken out of the game. According to UConn athletics, Neal-Tysor returned to the bench in the second half with a sling on her arm.
“My heart dropped to my stomach,” Mercer head coach Susie Gardner stated on the injury. “She’s tough and we’ll pray for the best honestly, but it was a tough blow.”
The Bears willed themselves the rest of the frame, scoring 12 points in the final seven minutes and forcing four Husky turnovers. Mercer scored 23 points in the first half — the most UConn had allowed in the opening 20 minutes since Marquette scored 31 points on Feb. 13.
“I wasn’t too thrilled at all with the way the first 20 minutes went,” Auriemma said bluntly.
UConn recovered and took it to Mercer in the third quarter, outscoring them 20-0, collecting 19 boards and going 8-21 from the field. In those 10 minutes, eight different Huskies made a field goal or a free throw.
“I thought we came out with a different attitude in the third quarter,” Auriemma explained.
This was only the second time ever that UConn shut out a team for an entire quarter. The first instance occurred against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the 2018 American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals.
Mercer ended the drought on a three-pointer from Erin Houpt 20 seconds into the fourth, but the Huskies brought out a barrage of three-pointers as part of an 8-0 stretch to ice the contest. Piath Gabriel and Amari DeBerry got involved as the Huskies won their 28th consecutive opening round game 83-38.
“UConn’s a great team,” Mercer forward Jaron Dougherty told the press after the game. “They do pride [themselves] in playing great defense and putting pressure.”
It was an all-around team effort as everyone but DeBerry scored at least three points and everyone grabbed a rebound. Williams led the way for the Huskies with 13 points, but Dorka Juhasz did the most damage with 10 points and 10 rebounds in her March Madness debut.
“It was very exciting,” Juhasz remarked about her performance. “It wasn’t perfect and personally my play wasn’t perfect either, but it was definitely a good experience for me.”
In only her second start since Dec. 5, Paige Bueckers showed that she was getting closer to her normal self, playing 24 minutes, collecting five assists and scoring 12 points on 5-7 shooting.
“I think I’m just still trying to find my way back in,” Bueckers commented. “I’m not really looking to force shots. I’m just looking to shoot when I’m open and get everybody else involved.”
Defensively, the Huskies contained the Bears, forcing them to shoot 23% from the field. By allowing 38 points, the Huskies kept their opponent to less than 50 points for the eighth time in nine games.
“The best teams that we’ve had over the years have been really hard to score against, really hard to run their offense against,” Auriemma said. “Because we put the kind of pressure, we put on them by scoring, now it puts even more pressure on them to have to score.”
The Huskies (26-5) take on the seventh-seeded University of Central Florida Knights in the second round at Gampel Pavilion. UCF is looking to go to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever in their seventh all-time appearance. The Knights, winners of the AAC Tournament and 14 straight, beat the 10th-seeded Florida Gators in the first round 69-52.
Brittney Smith (10.7 PPG, 6.0 RPG) led the Knights with 26 points and six rebounds off the bench. Masseny Kaba, who had 14 points and five rebounds, is just as dangerous with 9.9 PPG and 5.9 RPG.
Diamond Battles, the AAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player, averages 14 PPG with 102 assists. Battles had 18 points and seven rebounds against Florida and will look to carry that energy over after playing all 40 minutes.
UCF dominates on defense, averaging 11 steals, 37.5 rebounds and 19.8 turnovers per game. The Huskies will need to bring their defensive A-game Monday if they want to advance to Bridgeport next weekend.
“You’ve got to be the more aggressive team when you play against them,” Auriemma told the press.
This will be the first meeting between these two teams since Feb. 22, 2020, a 66-53 UConn victory in Storrs. UConn is 13-0 all-time against UCF dating back to the 2013-14 season.
Tip-off is scheduled for Monday at 9 p.m. on ESPN.