March 7, 2022 

What to watch for: BIG EAST tournament finals edition

Can Villanova defeat UConn for a second time this season?

UNCASVILLE — The BIG EAST semifinals have wrapped up from Mohegan Sun area, and the number one and two seeds (UConn and Villanova, respectively) are the teams left standing. One-seed UConn beat five-seed Marquette, 71-51 on 50.0% shooting from the field and 38.9% from three. Two-seed Villanova beat six-seed Seton Hall 64-55 behind a double-double (24 points, 14 rebounds) performance from Maddy Siegrist.

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The top seeds will face off in a winner-take-all championship game Monday. Last time the two teams played, Villanova snapped UConn’s historic 169-game conference winning streak. When the teams last faced off, UConn played without senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, sophomore Paige Bueckers and freshman Caroline Ducharme. How will a less-depleted Huskies squad match up against a streaking Villanova team?

For UConn, the key to a win lies in their depth. With nearly their entire roster available (with the exception of Aubrey Griffin who is out for the season), the Huskies have way more options. Their success will rely upon the continued great play of their seniors alongside contributions from key underclassmen.

The Wildcats need to execute a solid defensive game plan and crash the boards. Limiting touches for the UConn’s shooters and out-rebounding the Huskies are the keys to a Villanova victory.

UConn seniors stepping up

UConn has struggled with depth all season, dealing with ongoing player injuries and COVID health and safety challenges. With a full roster available, it’s been the Huskies’ seniors who have stepped up late in the season for this team.

Having more players available has allowed the team to rotate players in and out more frequently, allowing for fresher legs on the court. Senior Evina Westbrook reflected after UConn’s quarterfinal win over Marquette that the return of key players like freshman Azzi Fudd and sophomore Paige Bueckers has been a relief.

“It feels really good to have everyone back. And I think it — not pressure necessarily, but when guys are tired, it’s cool to see the next five, however many people are coming in, that that second five can be that first five, too. So it feels good. And I feel like as a confidence for the team as a whole and I think it does that for us,” said Westbrook.

Head coach Geno Auriemma knows that March brings out a different urgency for seniors in this UConn program.

“I just think this time of year, if you’re a senior and you’re at UConn, you have to have an impact on the game, every game that you play,” Auriemma said. “You have to come out and feel good about the impact you’ve had.”

UConn seniors contributed 48 of Connecticut’s 71 points (about 68% of all points) in the semifinal game. Westbrook, who led the team in scoring with 14 points, also contributed four rebounds, two assists and a steal in her 19 minutes of play.

If the Connecticut seniors can keep up their high levels of production and Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd also find their rhythm in tonight’s game against Villanova, it will be difficult for the Wildcats to contain the Huskies for a full 40 minutes.

Crashing the boards

A big reason why Villanova was able to defeat UConn when the teams last met on February 9 was their ability to create second and third possessions by crashing the glass. The Wildcats outrebounded the Huskies 37-21. So far throughout the tournament, Villanova has outrebounded its opponents 80-60. In their quarterfinal match-up against St. John’s, graduate student Brianna Herlihy registered a career-high 17 rebounds.

Wildcats coach Denise Dillon also stressed the importance of limiting UConn’s offensive touches.

“There’s many UConn players that need to be slowed down and stopped…Just counting on, again, the understanding of less touches allows less attempts. So putting that assignment out there for the team,” Coach Dillon said. “But with UConn, you’ve got to honor each and every one of the players that’s on the floor. So we’ve got to step up our defensive game, of course, and be able to execute what we want to on offense.”

Herlihy knows that UConn will out strong looking to avenge their loss to Villanova earlier this season.

“I think we definitely have an expectation that it’s going to be a lot harder tomorrow knowing that they’re coming back for a revenge game,” Herlihy said. “I think we just have that mindset. But we made it to the championship. So we’re going to play like we’re playing in a championship.”

The Huskies and Wildcats tip off Monday, March 7 at 8 pm ET. The game can be seen on Fox Sports 1.

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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