“It was a helluva effort by our guys against a great team,” head coach Geno Auriemma commented after the game, a 75-58 victory against the No. 3 Indiana University Hoosiers.
On Monday, March 21, the women’s basketball team scored a season-low 52 points in a second-round bout against the No. 7 University of Central Florida Knights. It served as a wake-up call. Staying within their home state, the Huskies roared themselves back to life in an all-around performance.
Not every all-around effort is perfect, and that was the case for the Huskies as Indiana’s defense forced multiple turnovers and several bad shot attempts. UConn went down 8-2 less than four minutes in, but gradually recovered with two 3-point shots from Azzi Fudd, providing the spark. The lead was out of the Huskies’ reach until Christyn Williams got the bucket and the foul to tie the contest at 18 with 56 seconds in the first. UConn took the lead on the ensuing free throw.
Defense is just as important. Over the course of the game, the Huskies forced seven steals and blocked four shots. One of those occurred at the end of the first quarter as Williams tipped a shot that got the Bridgeport crowd on their feet and helped maintain the lead.
“I thought we did an amazing job defensively,” Auriemma noted. “That was the difference in the game.”
The Huskies found life in the second quarter against UCF, but not as much against Indiana as they shot 36.8% from the field. After mulling around for 90 seconds, Caroline Ducharme got involved right away, scoring on her first possession to set the offense in motion. UConn took advantage of as many chances as they could, whether it was a 3-pointer from Nika Muhl or a scoop and score from Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
Only three Hoosiers scored during the frame. Ali Patberg scored the team’s first eight points, Mackenzie Holmes scored the next four and Aleksa Gulbe hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the corner after the Huskies turned the ball over.
That could have been a momentum shifter for Indiana, but UConn’s offense didn’t appreciate that 9-2 half-closing run. They started the third quarter on a 16-0 run, as the Hoosiers drew five fouls in less than four minutes and three in the first minute. Not even an Indiana timeout stopped the bleeding, as Bueckers made numerous floaters and Williams got good jumpers in the paint.
“During that stretch, we looked extremely confident,” Auriemma said about the offense catching the hot hand. UConn finished the quarter shooting 56.3% from the field while forcing 11 rebounds, six of which belonged to Nelson-Ododa. The Hoosiers scored the last four points of the quarter, but it might have been too little too late.
Both defenses came out to play to begin the fourth quarter, with four total points in the first four minutes, but after numerous rebounds and several rough fouls the offenses found their footing. Indiana scored twice on the fastbreak while Nelson-Ododa and Edwards each scored in the paint, but the Huskies iced this game from the charity stripe.
In the final two minutes, Fudd and Evina Westbrook converted both of their free throw attempts and Williams answered a two-point basket from Holmes with one of her own to put this game out of reach. Amari DeBerry checked into the game with 22 seconds left as the Huskies advanced to their 16th straight Elite 8.
Bueckers and Williams each had 15 points for the Huskies while Fudd scored 13 with three 3-pointers. Patberg led Indiana with 16 points on 7-9 shooting while Grace Berger scored 13.
The Huskies shot 46.3% from the field, but reached that number with 19 more shot attempts than the Hoosiers, who had 48. UConn outrebounded Indiana 39-27, but notably dominated the offensive glass 15-2 to force second chances aplenty. Nelson-Ododa and Edwards nearly outrebounded Indiana by themselves, as Nelson-Ododa collected 14 and Edwards obtained 10.
“Offensive rebounding is a part of the game that is not something a lot of players take pride in or aspire to be,” Auriemma explained. “We’re going to get open shots, but we need to give ourselves more possessions.”
Despite the 17-point win, Auriemma highlighted that no March Madnes game is simple in nature.
“Nobody’s gonna go out here and lose in the tournament,” Auriemma remarked. “You gotta go out there and beat them.” That’s especially the case with their next opponent.
The Huskies (28-5) play the top-seeded and third-ranked team in the Elite 8, the North Carolina State Wolfpack. The winner advances to the Final Four in Minneapolis, where they will play either Stanford or Texas. NC State (32-3) got their revenge against the No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 66-63 after a breakaway steal and bucket from Raina Perez. Perez (8.8 PPG) has started every game and made an impact every time she is out on the court.
Elissa Cunane (13.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG), the ACC Player of the Year runner-up, leads the charge for the Wolfpack. Her work both offensively and defensively has sparked other players to dominate, such as ACC Sixth Player of the Year Diamond Johnson (10.9 PPG) and Jakia Brown-Turner (9.5 PPG).
Defense wins championships, and whoever gets theirs set in motion first is going to have the upper hand. Two categories where that matters the most are rebounds and steals. NC State averages 7.5 steals per game compared to UConn’s 9.3, while both teams allow exactly 5.8 apiece. NC State collects 42 rebounds a game while UConn grabs 38.8. Both surrender under 33 per game.
This will be their second-ever meeting. UConn won their only meeting in 2007 78-71, a Sweet 16 showdown in the Fresno, California, Regional. Both teams enter with a 13-game winning streak.
That game tips off Monday, March 28, at 7 p.m. in Bridgeport and can be viewed on ESPN. Live stats will be available on StatBroadcast.