March 7, 2024 

BIG EAST notebook: Regular season wraps up, tournament stage is set

The BIG EAST Tournament tips off Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena

With a dominant 104-67 win at DePaul last week, the UConn women’s basketball team clinched its 23rd BIG EAST regular season title and its 30th overall regular season conference title, including seven titles in the American Athletic Conference from 2014-2020.

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“These kids know when it’s March time, they’ve been in a couple of Final Fours. I think there’s a different vibe in our team,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said following his team’s regular season title win.

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The Huskies put a cherry on top of an undefeated 18-0 season with a 65-42 road win over Providence on Saturday evening. While the Friars kept pace with the Huskies until about the first media timeout, trailing just 12-10, UConn would end the first quarter on a 9-3 run and allow just six Friar points for the remainder of the half. UConn guard Paige Bueckers got to the basket at will, ending the first half with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the field. Senior forward Aaliyah Edwards chipped in 10 points and six rebounds. Providence couldn’t handle UConn’s stifling defense, shooting just 19.2% from the field on the half as the Huskies took a 37-16 lead into the locker room. It was all cosmetic in the second half. Bueckers and Edwards headed to the bench after 22 and 23 minutes played, respectively, enjoying some well-earned rest after carrying a heavy minutes load all season.

Despite losing five players to season-ending injuries, the Huskies rolled through the conference this season. The champs won every game by double-digits and their closest margin of victory was 15 against St. John’s on Feb. 4.

“It’s a lot harder than it looks. It’s a lot harder than people think and at Connecticut, it’s exceptionally hard because the expectation is that you’re going to win,” Auriemma said. “‘You’re the preseason favorite to win the league.’ Yeah, but we’re missing half our team. ‘Well, even if you only play four against five, you’re supposed to win the league because you’re Connecticut.’”

The Huskies will face off Saturday against the winner of Friday’s BIG EAST Tournament first round matchup between No. 8 seed Butler and No. 9 seed Providence.

Tourney time

With the regular season in the rear-view mirror, the seeding for the BIG EAST Tournament, which tips off on Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena, is set. All 11 teams qualify for the conference postseason, with the top five teams in the final regular-season standings receiving first-round byes. 

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Hoyas flying high

While there was no suspense in the conference’s final weekend that UConn would be the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, there was seeding at stake for other teams. Going into Saturday, Georgetown needed a win over Xavier and a Seton Hall loss to secure the No. 6 seed. The Hoyas did their part, defeating Xavier 66-46 in Cincinnati behind a career-high 18 points (6-of-13 from three) from sophomore Victoria Rivera. Seton Hall fought hard against Creighton on Sunday but dropped the Senior Day matinee to Creighton by a final score of 72-65.

Georgetown ends the regular season at 19-10 (9-9 BIG EAST). The No. 6 seed showed a lot of grit following the loss of head coach Tasha Butts to breast cancer just prior to the start of the season. The Hoyas have a lot of talent and heart and could make some noise during the conference tournament.

“I’m just so proud of their mental stamina over the course of this year,” said Georgetown interim head coach Darnell Haney. “Not just because we’ve had adversity, but we’ve been in situations where we could have folded but we never stopped … This is the most regular season wins since 2011, it’s the best conference record since 2019 and I’m just proud of them for knowing, trusting and learning how to win.”

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Most intriguing matchup

Saturday’s matchup between No. 4 seed Villanova and No. 5 seed Marquette has the potential to be an instant classic. Both teams advanced to last season’s BIG EAST Tournament semifinals, but only one will survive and advance to this season’s semis. The teams compiled identical 11-7 records in conference play this season. Villanova holds the tie-breaker in the standings after narrow wins over Marquette at home on Jan. 17 (66-63) and in Milwaukee on Feb. 10 (55-52).

Marquette, the conference preseason No. 3 fell a bit below expectations at No. 5, while Villanova finished at No. 4, as predicted preseason. The No. 5 seed has defeated the No. 4 seed in each of the last three tournaments.

This matchup includes some of the conference’s brightest stars, highlighted by Villanova junior guard Lucy Olsen and Marquette senior forward Liza Karlen. Olsen leads the conference in minutes per game (36.3) and points per game (23.3). She notched 30+ points on nine separate occasions this season and dropped a 40-piece on Temple in November. Her clutch shooting performances include a buzzer beater to win Villanova’s regular season finale on Sunday, clinching the No. 4 seed for the tournament.

Karlen has been consistent for Marquette all season, earning BIG EAST Player of the Week honors three times and clinching AP Player of the Week on Dec. 19. She averages 18 points a game on 52% shooting from the field and pulls down 7.7 rebounds per game. She’s been consistent on the offensive end all season and provides a steady paint presence for the Golden Eagles. Expect her to come out strong in the tournament and show the same consistency she has shown all season.

A spot in the semis isn’t the only thing on the line when these two squads match up. Entering the conference tournament, Marquette sits at No. 37 in the NET, with Villanova 12 spots behind at No. 49. Marquette is projected to be a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while Villanova sits on the First Four Out bubble. Marquette has the chance with a deep tournament run to prove to the committee that they deserve a higher seed. Villanova is playing for a spot in the Big Dance after advancing to the Sweet Sixteen last season for the first time in 20 years.

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Honoring history

The BIG EAST announced on Tuesday the creation of the Basketball Legends Recognition Program. Starting this season and continuing annually, each of the 11 women’s and men’s basketball programs in the conference will select a prominent coach or player from the program’s history to be honored at the BIG EAST Tournament.

“We are excited to launch this annual celebration of former players and coaches who have had profound impacts on the history and success of our 22 basketball programs,” said BIG EAST Commissioner Val Ackerman. “This first group of BIG EAST Legends includes trailblazers as well as more recent stars, all of whom have contributed significantly to their schools and many of whom are part of BIG EAST basketball lore.  We look forward to giving them another big round of applause during our upcoming tournament festivities.”

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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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