March 24, 2024 

NCAA Tournament first round notebook from Storrs

UConn and Syracuse victories set up match between former BIG EAST foes

STORRS, Conn. — The Round of 64 tipped off at Gampel Pavilion Saturday afternoon, with No. 3 seed UConn and No. 6 seed Syracuse advancing to the Round of 32 after victories over Jackson State and Arizona, respectively. The former BIG EAST foes will meet for the 53rd time on March 25 at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Huskies have won their last 26 matchups, including the 2016 national championship game. 

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

Here are five storylines from the first round in Storrs: 

Ashlynn Shade clenches her fists and screams in celebration
UConn freshman guard Ashlynn Shade celebrates during the team’s game against Jackson State in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, on March 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Ashlynn Shade shone bright in the first round

Last year, UConn’s freshman guard Ashlynn Shade was watching March Madness from her home in Indiana, filling out her bracket for a family competition. “This year’s a little different because I’m actually here now,” she said after UConn’s 86-64 victory over No. 14 seed Jackson State. “… [I]t’s so surreal to actually finally be part of it. You watch it on TV for so long, and you watch games all day long, but to actually be playing in a March Madness game is super cool.”

Shade was second on the team with 26 points on 10-19 shooting from the floor, including 5-11 from behind the arc. She also added six rebounds, one assist and two steals, playing all but 27 seconds. All night before and morning of the 1 p.m. tip time, Shade felt nerves and anxiety. But once she stepped out on the court and went through the player introductions for the starting lineup, she felt like the moment was a dream. “I was just going to let the game come to me,” she said. “I wasn’t going to overthink it, which I typically do.”

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

Redshirt junior guard Paige Bueckers knows that Shade and the other freshmen have been making an impact throughout the season.“[T]o come out in a huge stakes game, [a] March Madness game where it’s win or go home and perform like that on your first time on the stage is really huge, especially getting confidence in what you want to continue to do the rest of the way,” Bueckers said. “So, her being aggressive, we need it. Her looking for her shot, we need it. So for her to do it and come out with as much confidence as she did tonight was huge.”

Head coach Geno Auriemma said though Shade lost her confidence for a while, it’s back. “She certainly didn’t play like a freshman today,” he said. “And she actually played better today than she has at any practice this week leading up to the game. So, figure that one out.”

UConn celebrates head coach Geno Auriemma’s 70th birthday

Auriemma wasn’t the only quick-witted one on stage at UConn’s press conference. Bueckers twice referred to her coach as “grandpa” while talking about his 70th birthday. The first reference came with a glare from Auriemma, the second with a flick of water, while his facial expression remained unchanged. 

“To get this one, especially on his day is really huge … And Coach is everything for all of us. He’s like our grandpa,” Bueckers said with a smile on her face. “But, no, I’ve learned so much under him, [we’ve] all learned so much under him but it’s not just stuff on the basketball court, it’s stuff as human beings.

“He has our back even though some days it might not feel like it, but he’ll have our back for anything, anything we need in life, he’ll always be there. And it’s just a real — sometimes it’s like a tough-love relationship, especially with me, but just, I cherish our relationship so much and I know I can count on him for [whatever]. Whenever I want to go chat, go to his office, just literally talk about nothing and it’ll be a great time. But we’re super grateful — everyone who commits here comes to play for him, so super grateful and happy birthday, grandpa.” 

The team sang him happy birthday in the morning before the game. After the game, each member of the team wore a shirt in the locker room with a different photo of or representing Auriemma that they picked out. Bueckers and Shade even sported this look at the press conference. 

“My shirt — we were headed up to Big East Media Day and my man needed a nap, so he just kind of took a snooze and I took a flick,” Bueckers said. 

Shade’s shirt showed a younger Auriemma with his arms stretched out, yelling. “I think this shirt sums up Coach’s relationship with me,” she said. “This is what he looks like most of the time on the court. But when he yells at me, I’m just starting to translate it into I love you instead of you suck. But — so when he goes you suck. I’m just like, ugh, love you, too.” 

“You need a new translator,” Auriemma quipped back. 

Ti'Ian Boler has the ball in her right hand in shooting position with two fingers of her left hand stabilizing the ball as she prepares to release it.
Jackson State senior guard Ti’Ian Boler gets ready to put up a shot against UConn during the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, on March 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Jackson State’s Ti’Ian Boler made her mark

Though more than 1300 miles span between Jackson State University and UConn’s Gampel Pavillion, a small but mighty part of the fan base traveled to cheer on the team. While sitting across the court from the Jackson State bench, they’d stand and cheer after made baskets, with one fan wielding a pompom as well. Jackson State’s band, the Sonic Boom of the South, also traveled to support the team. 

“I love my HBCU. I love my fans. I love the band,” senior guard Ti’Ian Boler said after the game. “That was really sweet of them. We were excited when we loaded up, and it made us feel at home that we got to bring some home to Connecticut.” Her teammate Angel Jackson added, “It was amazing seeing our fans in the stands, just knowing that they came out here to support us means so much to us. We feed off of their energy, they feed off of our energy, so I just want to give a shout-out to everybody that came out. We love the Boom.”  

The Next and The Equalizer are teaming up

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribers to The Next now receive 50% off their subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

Boler led the team with 25 points and made five of the team’s six 3-pointers. She also added three rebounds, one steal and one block. As the game went on, Boler stopped looking at the scoreboard and just worked to chip away at UConn’s lead, which at its most was 28. “I didn’t see a person in front of me at a point, like I just saw rim so I was just like, okay,” she said. “In the first quarter, I was kind of a little jittery, I admit that but I kind of let it go like second — that second media timeout. That’s when I knew like, ‘Oh, I’m in this moment. I’m just as good as them,’ so that’s when I started playing like it.” 

As Boler talked about her performance, Jackson looked over with a smile on her face, visibly proud of her friend’s accomplishments. The same smile broke out moments later when Jackson was asked about Boler’s performance. “If you guys don’t know, this is my bestie,” Jackson said gesturing towards Boler. “I’m so proud of her. I met Ti’Ian last year. She’s been outstanding, phenomenal for us. She always knows how to get the ball in and how to create her shots so I just love the way she plays and [I’m] glad that she did come out. That’s what got us going today. She played so hard and we had to follow behind her and we stepped it up with her.” 

Dyaisha Fair has the ball in her left palm as the dribbles the ball up the court, with her weight on her right foot and her left foot mid-step in the air.
Syracuse graduate student guard Dyaisha Fair dribbles the ball up the court against Arizona in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, on March 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

‘Fourth-quarter kid’ Dyaisha Fair leads Syracuse to the second round  

Graduate student guard Dyaisha Fair had 19 points, including the game-tying layup with 16 seconds left in the third quarter. Seconds later she went down with what looked like a right knee injury and didn’t put any weight on her right leg as she was carried off the floor. She missed just 2 minutes and 9 seconds of game action, and came back in with a small support under her right knee. “I was just hoping it wasn’t anything serious,” Fair said. “At first, when stuff like that happens, you think the worst, and at first it was just overwhelming. But I knew once I felt good, or I knew I was able to go, in the back of my mind, my team is still counting on me. If I can go, I’ll go.” 

When Fair returned to the bench she said just two words to head coach Felicia Legette-Jack: “I’m good.” “I smacked her hand so hard, I might have broke her arm,” Legette-Jack said. “You know that’s a fourth-quarter kid and she says I’m good, you say who’s coming out? … She came through. She’s a special young lady.”

Fair’s first points of the fourth quarter wouldn’t come until there was 2:43 left on the clock, the start of a 13-3 Syracuse run to end the game. She scored all 13 points to secure the 74-69 victory over No. 11 seed Arizona. “I think we’ve been there before,” she said. “When you have experience, you know what it takes to win and you know what it takes to have success. I think the scorer that I am and the confidence that I have and the confidence that my teammates and my coaching staff instill in me all throughout the year is just keep going. It’s just keep going and trust your work.” 

In addition to her scoring success, tallying 32 points on 11-22 shooting from the floor, Fair also added four assists and six steals. She was shocked to hear the number of steals she recorded. “I think my quickness is kind of what we feed off of, me just going and going and going and being able to get up under those passes or whatever and get my team going,” Fair said. “That’s the type of game we like to play. We like to go in transition, and we like to go pretty fast sometimes. I think that’s kind of what helped us get on a run. And then it built energy for us and gave us the momentum.”

Sophomore guard Kennedi Perkins said she loves when Fair gets in the zone. “We know when she’s cooking, give her the ball,” Perkins said. We’ll rebound. We’ll get her open if we need to. But when Dyaisha gets going, who can stop her?”

Skylar Jones is tracking her shot with her eyes while following through her shooting motion to see if the ball will go in the basket.
Arizona freshman guard Skylar Jones puts up a shot against Syracuse in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, on March 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Arizona’s freshmen impressed, led by Skylar Jones

The Wildcats have been playing with a limited roster for much of the season. This allowed freshmen Breya Cunningham, Skylar Jones and Jada Williams to play more minutes. In the postgame press conference, Jones thanked the seniors on the team, who got on her when she was nervous and not “driving, shooting, doing anything.” 

The freshmen trio combined for 46 of the team’s 69 points, led by Jones’ 24 points. She also added six rebounds, five assists and three steals. “I think they were amazing today, and I think they were amazing all season,” fifth-year guard Helena Pueyo said of the freshmen. “Especially Skylar tonight, she was really aggressive. She was playing really hard. I think it’s good for them to get experience for the next years, and I know they’re going to be great players. I mean, they’re playing like seniors now, and I didn’t see myself like that when I was a freshman. So I’m just really proud of them. They are going to be great.”

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

Jones noted that her head coach Adia Barnes gave her the confidence to put up performances like this and that the other freshmen on the team are also playing better. Heading into next season, Jones plans to take the importance of cohesiveness, seeing what it did to help this season’s team, hoping to go even further in the tournament. 

Barnes noted that the three freshmen gained a lot of experience this season she can’t simulate in practice. “You can’t simulate this stage. You can’t simulate this setting in the tournament,” Barnes said. “So this will pay dividends later on.  … We’ll learn from it. We’ll have more depth next year for sure but definitely a great foundation to build off of.”

Early in the season, Jones’ body language would show how she felt after a turnover or other error. Barnes worked to teach her to not show your opponents how you feel and believes as she’s learned that, Jones has continued to grow and it has allowed her to play better. “Great players, we always say, have amnesia.” Barnes said. “If you’re a great shooter, you don’t think about the last shot, you think about the next shot. If you make a mistake, we always taught her you have the ability to defend, so go get it back on defense. Those things, she’s grown so much. That’s why she’s able in [an] NCAA Tournament game to be 8 for 14 and have 24 points.

“We didn’t think she was capable of this a couple months ago. I think the combination of playing a lot of minutes, playing through mistakes because some of that is because of necessity because of our numbers, but she’s proven she deserved that. She showed up for us, and she’s helped us win games. So I’m really excited and optimistic about the future because her coming back, she’s just going to continue to get better, and she’s improved so much throughout this year. Yeah, just proud of her mentality and her approach to everything. She’s done that, I haven’t done that.”

Reflecting back on the season as a whole, Pueyo was particularly proud of the team’s 68-61 win at Stanford on Feb. 23. “We showed people that even with seven players, you can do big things,” she said. “And then since [then] we’ve just been working like really hard. With seven people it’s also hard and especially with three freshmen. So that’s what I mean when I say the freshmen are playing as seniors, and I think they’ve done a really good job.”

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.