March 23, 2022 

How UConn overcame near upset from UCF

And what's next for BIG EAST teams in the postseason

STORRS, CT–A restless UConn head coach Geno Auriemma addressed a late-night crowd of press after his team gutted out a 52-47 win over the UCF Knights in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Monday.

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“I can honestly say that, given the kind of season we’ve had, I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. But this was a rather new experience for me,” the head coach said.

When asked to elaborate, Auriemma hesitated before he replied.

“When I said it’s a new experience, I mean I have a certain vision of how the game is played. And for 30-some years we played the game that way. And tonight we didn’t play the game that way, not even close,” Auriemma said.

“So I’m experiencing things this year I’ve never experienced before. And I guess it’s supposed to make me a better person,” the hall of famer concluded sarcastically.

Defining toughness

The struggles began early for the Huskies in front of a rowdy sell-out crowd at Gampel Pavilion. UCF ran out to an 11-4 lead in a very physical first few minutes of play. Connecticut would pick up quick fouls early on the defensive end including an Evina Westbrook shooting foul on a three point shot and an over-the-back foul on Olivia Nelson-Ododa off the missed free throw to put UCF in the bonus.

“It was a battle the whole game,” said UConn senior Christyn Williams. “When we played [UCF] my freshman and sophomore year, they were always super aggressive. We knew coming into this game they would be very physical and very aggressive. We just tried to throw the first punch and keep punching them.”

After a battle for a loose ball created by a Knights half-court trap of Paige Bueckers late in the first quarter, the sophomore turned to the student section and signaled for them to bring on the boos and jeers. UCF maintained the pressure, leading the Huskies 18-12 after the first quarter.

Connecticut would pick up their defensive intensity at the start of the second quarter, relying on key contributions from Dorka Juhász and BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year Nika Mühl. Nika checked in at the 8:35 mark and immediately made her presence felt with a steal at the 7:57 mark. She would give the Huskies their first lead with a clutch three-pointer en route to a 26-23 halftime lead.

“I think the energy that Nika brings to our team is incredible,” UConn freshman Azzi Fudd said after the game. “As soon as she steps on the floor the defensive intensity goes up. She hit a huge three for us as well — right? That was her? She hit a huge three. And she brings so much to our team. The energy level is amazing when she comes in.”

Both teams struggled to maintain any level of offensive rhythm throughout the game. UConn converted on just two of 12 lay-up attempts on the night, and UCF was a dismal 50% (10-20) from the free throw line. In the end, UConn was just a bit tougher towards the end and finished the job, advancing to a record 28th consecutive Sweet Sixteen.

“Toughness is making all those free throws at the end, making eight free throws. Toughness is getting a huge rebound at a big time. Toughness is Christyn making that three when she had to make it. And I think we showed that,” said Auriemma. “I think all the other stuff was just fluff.”

‘You can’t do that’

It was an evening-long duel between the UCF band and the UConn student section as each took their turn berating the referees for tough calls made down the stretch of this especially physical game. Knights band members and the Huskies’ student section took turns yelling “You can’t do that” to their respective opposing teams each time a foul was called.

“Any good team is going to play physical,” said Knights head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. “And so you need to have all the cards right and all the people — I think there’s one official [officiates in] both of our leagues, she definitely does one. So she knows how we play … You know what I’m saying? I think it was like, whew — his whole team was in foul trouble too. In the NCAA Tournament you don’t want to see all the best players sitting on the bench. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that.”

The officiating did seem to disrupt the flow of the game at several points, with the referees attempting to control the physicality on the court. In the end there were 45 fouls called for the evening (24 UCF fouls, 21 UConn fouls). UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa and UCF’s Alisha Lewis all fouled out of the game.

How sweet it is

The BIG EAST has two teams each in the NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen and WNIT Sweet Sixteen. In addition to UConn’s Sweet Sixteen clinching-win over UCF, Creighton stunned the country to advance to its first round of 16 in the Big Dance.

Here’s what’s up next for Creighton and UConn in the NCAA tournament:

Friday, March 25
No. 10 Creighton vs. No. 3 Iowa State @ 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Saturday, March 26
No. 3 Indiana vs. No. 2 UConn @ 2:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

In WNIT action, Seton Hall advanced to the round of 16 with 67-45 win over Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round and a 70-67 victory over Virginia Commonwealth in round two. Marquette routed Ball State 93-70 to open up their WNIT play, and defeated Purdue 77-62 in the second round.

Here’s the schedule for BIG EAST teams in the WNIT:

Thursday, March 24
Drexel vs. Seton Hall @ 7:00 p.m. ET

Thursday, March 24
Toledo vs. Marquette @ 8:00 p.m. ET

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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