Just under one year ago, the Villanova Wildcats walked into the XL Center for a game that nobody expected them to win–let alone come close. They emerged victorious, breaking a bevy of UConn’s winning streaks. Sunday, the No. 21 Wildcats returned to Hartford looking to repeat history, with the No. 5 Huskies hoping to stay perfect in conference. After a gritty and hard-fought game that was difficult to watch, Connecticut prevailed, 63-58.
“Today was the first game all year where we looked really tired,” Coach Geno Auriemma mentioned. “After that first quarter you could see our energy drained. Somehow, some way, they found a way against a team that wasn’t going away, regardless of what we were doing.”
The team seemed to fall asleep after a solid first quarter, losing the second and third before they finally picked their act back up late. Their starters each notched over 37 minutes, with Auriemma running a tight rotation during a stretch with a lot of games. NCAA points leader Maddy Siegrist scored 25 in the losing effort, taking 23 shots to do so. She’s definitely played better games this season and got some nice support from Lucy Olson, who added 19 points, seven boards and four dimes.
“Coming here is a tough place to play,” Siegrist said. “It’s all mental preparation. We did a good job today and we had a lot of young players step up.”
With most of the Huskies’ weapons stifled, the best player by far was Aubrey Griffin, who notched 19 points to go along with six boards. She was fantastic and provided all of the Huskies’ energy throughout the game, bolstering the comeback effort.
“[Aubrey’s] confidence is more intact, she did a terrific job on Siegrist today,” noted Auriemma. “With a few exceptions, that’s been the whole season for her.”
Dorka Juhasz also had a nice game, although below her typical standards. She scored 17 and grabbed seven rebounds, including her three that gave the Huskies the lead for the final time. Juhasz was one of three players to stay on the floor for all 40 minutes, alongside Nika Muhl and Aaliyah Edwards, both of whom had weaker games than usual.
Muhl had just three assists and Edwards scored just 14, but the biggest surprise was Lou Lopez-Senechal’s six points. The typically high-scoring guard, was completely off Sunday, going just 2-13 from the field while missing all three attempts from deep. It was Lopez-Senechal’s first game of the year that saw her not finish in double-figures, something that will likely be chalked up to an uncharacteristic off-night.
“It was a pretty impressive win given that we didn’t get what we’ve come to expect from Lou [Lopez-Senechal] or Aaliyah [Edwards],” said Auriemma. “It’s really hard to win a game against a really good team when you don’t have that. Aubrey [Griffin] stepped up and made some big plays, we made our free throws. They’re a really good team and they’re hard to play against.”
The Wildcats opened the game with an energetic start, with Christina Dalce blocking UConn’s first two attempts to go along with a Siegrist triple. The Huskies didn’t let this faze them, picking up nine unanswered points to take an early lead. They maintained a four to eight point cushion for the majority of the first quarter, with Villanova answering their punches.
A quick 7-0 run to open the second frame put the Wildcats within one, interestingly enough, with no Siegrist points. Three Griffin buckets propelled an 8-2 Connecticut run and the teams stayed pretty even from there, with the Huskies taking a three point advantage into the break.
Siegrist scored six of Villanova’s eight straight points to start the half, leaving UConn scoreless for the first six minutes of the half. A Muhl layup gave the Huskies their first field goal of the period, but the Wildcats continued to score at will. They got ahead by as many as six, but a pair of Griffin points from the stripe got the Huskies within three going into the final quarter.
Siegrist boosted her game total to 25 with a jumper to get the advantage back up to six, as Connecticut looked for answers midway into the frame. The answer came in the form of a 10-1 Husky run that was highlighted by a lead-taking Griffin and-one. Olson responded with three points of her own, knotting the game at 55 with three to go. Juhasz hit what would prove to be the game-winning three, as Olson missed the game winner to give UConn a five point victory.
The Huskies play next this Wednesday, Feb. 1, against the Providence Friars, a game that should be a fair bit easier before they return to XL to face No. 1 South Carolina.