Throughout the season, the No. 6 UConn women’s basketball team has played several strong opponents on the road in non-conference action, whether it was the then-No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish or the Tennessee Volunteers. Their biggest road challenge, however, comes in the heart of conference play as they take on the No. 14 Villanova Wildcats inside the Finneran Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.
Both teams sit at the top of the Big East standings separated by one game, and this top-15 contest will most likely determine if one or both teams take home the regular-season conference title. In their last meeting on Jan. 29, the Huskies overcame a rut in the third quarter with an aggressive fourth to take a 63-58 victory at the XL Center.
Caroline Ducharme did not play in that initial meeting but returned from a 13-game absence due to a concussion with a career performance against the Creighton Bluejays on Wednesday night. Making the game-winning free throws in the last seconds, Ducharme scored all 10 of her points in the final frame as UConn rallied from down 11. Ducharme now averages 8.7 PPG and will be a critical part of the Huskies’ offense down the stretch in conference play.
UConn’s website lists Ducharme as a guard, and while she provides the backcourt with some much-needed depth, it will not stop Lou Lopez Sénéchal from running the show offensively. Lopez Sénéchal led the Huskies with 17 points on Wednesday and now averages 16.1 points at a 47.4% clip as she continues to make her case for an All-Big East Team selection. The graduate student will be looking for redemption after being limited to single digits for the first time all season when she last played Villanova.
Aaliyah Edwards is starting to get into a rhythm, finishing a few rebounds short of a double-double in each of her last two games. While she has not shot perfectly from the field, she leads the team with 16.4 PPG at a 59% clip and is second on the team with 8.8 RPG. Edwards ended a seven-game streak where she committed three or more fouls with two in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s contest, and her presence on the floor is going to be needed to help UConn attack the paint.
Edwards does not have to run the frontcourt by herself because of Dorka Juhász, who was recognized for earning a 4.0 GPA in the fall semester on Wednesday. The graduate student, selected to the Big East Weekly Honor Roll on Monday, continues to average a double-double at 14.4 PPG and a team-leading 10.3 RPG with 27 blocks to boot. Juhász has collected three double-doubles since the Huskies last played the Wildcats, but could add one more with another efficient game from the floor.
Both Nika Mühl and Aubrey Griffin produce on both ends of the floor, but do so in separate ways that have contributed to UConn’s success throughout the season. Mühl does it in transition even though she has made at least one three in her last seven games, whether it is with a team-leading 37 steals or the most assists in the country at 210. Griffin dominates in the paint and from the perimeter as she averages 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds at a 56.9% clip from the field.
Villanova (23-4, 14-2 Big East) enters on a five-game winning streak after last losing to the Huskies at the end of January and has won 14 out of their last 15 games dating back to Dec. 21. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Wildcats as a No. 4 seed in his most recent bracketology released on Tuesday, but a win against UConn in the first leg of a three-game homestand would most likely bump them up to a No. 3 seed.
Maddy Siegrist has been on a tear offensively since scoring 25 points against the Huskies in their first meeting. Averaging 34.2 points over her last five games, the nation’s leading scorer dropped 50 points against the Seton Hall Pirates this past Saturday to become the conference’s all-time leading scorer and is coming off a 39-point showing against the St. John’s Red Storm on Wednesday night. The perennial Big East Player of the Year has not had a game this season where she scored less than 21 points, and with the home crowd on her side this time around, expect her to score 30 or more points for the fourth time in her last five games.
Siegrist has 89 points in her last two games, but she is not the focal point of a Villanova offense that has scored over 70 points in each of its last five games. Lucy Olsen is the only other player on the team to average double figures with 12.7 PPG, but she can run the floor efficiently as she is fourth in the conference with 120 assists and leads the team with 34 steals. While Christina Dalce (7.7 RPG and a conference-leading 63 blocks) is the defensive enforcer, Maddie Burke is the team’s wild card. Even though she is third on the team with 8.1 PPG, she can reach double figures when people least expect it and let her three-point shots fly.
It goes without saying that the key to victory in this game is going to be the offense, despite the two teams combining for 121 points in their first meeting. Villanova’s offense has improved from 70 to 72 points per game since their last meeting, while UConn’s has declined from 80.9 to 77.9 in that same span. With four combined players averaging more than 15 points and a handful shooting over 40% from the field, the team that can make as many of their shot opportunities will win this heavyweight clash.
Tipoff between the top two teams in the Big East standings is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. EST on FOX.