For the No. 2 UConn women’s basketball team, there was a different expectation of greatness entering this year’s campaign. Many have compared this year’s Huskies to the all-time greats that Coach Geno Auriemma has headed. On paper, there’s so much to like about this team and it’s hard to see them losing to anyone. Unfortunately for them though, games aren’t played on paper.
NC State brought the Huskies into their house Sunday afternoon following two straight in Connecticut, both in 2022. The Huskies won both matchups, but the Wolfpack is a much different team now. They lost their top four scorers and reloaded in a big way. The biggest performance didn’t come from any new transfer, but a player that joined the program in 2022: Saniya Rivers. The best returning scorer from last year’s squad went ballistic on UConn, a key reason for their 92-81 win.
Aside from Rivers’ stellar outing, the Pack looked like the better team. They used their superior size, one of the Huskies’ weaknesses, to their advantage, which culminated in a 41-29 rebounding mark. They also blocked seven more shots than UConn, imposing their will and making it difficult to get buckets inside. One of the biggest issues was Connecticut’s foul trouble, which plagued them in the third quarter and took their biggest playmaker out of the game.
That player was Paige Bueckers, who had a mixed day. She had four fouls, which caused her to leave the game right in time for State to build their lead. Aaliyah Edwards had a similar issue, but managed to keep herself in the contest for slightly longer. The pair did their part in helping the Huskies push for the victory with 48 combined points (out of 81), but were met with little help from their teammates.
The next best scorer for the Huskies was Qadence Samuels, who did everything she needed to do as a freshman playing in her second game, grabbing 14 points on 4-8 shooting from deep. But Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme, who are both supposed to be great shooters, combined for 1-9 from beyond the arc and did little to aid the effort.
Fudd, who missed nine of her 13 tries on the day, nailed a triple on the Huskies’ first possession. An Edwards jumper increased the lead to five, but the Wolfpack answered. Then came Bueckers.
The former National Player of the Year nabbed a steal and converted on a conventional 3-point play. After she drew a charge, Nika Mühl scored a quick four points, but her second bucket had a much more important role. The score drew the second foul on Aziaha Jones, who scored 26 points in NC State’s opener.
Still, the Wolfpack didn’t back down, doing well to cut the deficit to two. In the last minute and a half of the opening quarter, however, Connecticut nailed seven straight, highlighted by a Samuels three, and exited with a nine-point lead.
After a bit of back and forth, NC State found their groove. They ripped off an 8-0 run to even the score. Ducharme righted the ship with a layup and Bueckers added five, but the Pack continued to linger. State grabbed their first lead of the contest with a Rivers jumper, but freshman KK Arnold fought through contact to give the Huskies a narrow halftime advantage.
The teams came sputtering out of the locker room, with the first points of the second half not coming until nearly two minutes in. Even when the buckets started falling, they didn’t come consistently. Bueckers was the only Husky to score before the under-five timeout and NC State took advantage. Rivers recorded her career-high in scoring by the third frame as the Pack jumped out to a seven-point lead.
Rivers was phenomenal, notching 33 points, 10 boards and five assists. She was the catalyst behind the State effort, perhaps avenging last year’s game when she scored just five points in 24 minutes.
Bueckers passed up a contested triple and swung a gorgeous cross-court pass to Samuels, who hit from downtown. Bueckers made a critical error shortly after, pushing off her defender to tally her third foul.
Edwards hit a few shots to narrow the deficit to just three, but the team crumbled without Bueckers. They couldn’t grab a rebound and had trouble getting any good looks, culminating in 11 straight points for the Wolfpack.
Bueckers reentered the contest with six minutes remaining, but immediately picked up her fourth foul. The Huskies couldn’t catch a break even as they began to put the ball into the hoop again, as State answered every bucket.
Rivers then missed an easy layup after a terrific move, cracking the door open for Connecticut. Bueckers splashed a three to cut it to eight, but Rivers continued to build on her career-day. Four more for Bueckers brought the Huskies closer, but then it became a free throw game. The clock ultimately ran out on UConn’s comeback bid and they took their first defeat of the season.
If the Huskies want to win a title, they will need to see more support from their shooters and role players. It seems clear that Bueckers and Edwards will do their part on a nightly basis, but it’s up to the others to get the team over the finish line. They didn’t do enough Sunday and it showed.
UConn will have a chance to bounce back in Storrs this Thursday against No. 14 Maryland, who recently endured a 38-point beating by No. 6 South Carolina.