March 6, 2023
BIG EAST Tournament finals preview — Can the Wildcats take down the top dogs?
Villanova and UConn face off in the title game for a second consecutive season
The BIG EAST Tournament semifinals are in the books, and two teams are left standing. Just like last year, No. 2 seed Villanova will face off against No. 1 seed UConn with the conference tournament title on the line at 7 PM ET Monday night, televised on Fox Sports 1. How did these teams get here, and who is the X-factor for the the Huskies and the Wildcats?
No. 1 seed UConn
Path to final
The Huskies made easy work of their first two opponents, dismantling Georgetown 69-39 in the quarterfinals and avenging a regular season loss to Marquette with an 81-52 semifinal win. The Huskies are playing lockdown defense through the first two games of the BIG EAST Tournament and showed flashes of dominance reminiscent of the Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart eras. When March rolls around, UConn is always able to find another level.
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“There’s games in January and then there’s games in March and, you know, I don’t get too excited about games in February,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “I worry more about are we getting better so that we can be really good in March. And that’s kind of been the philosophy around here for a lot of years.”
Offense has been a challenge for UConn at times this season, with stretches of stagnancy that have disrupted their ability to get points on the board. The tournament has been a different story, though, and it starts with dominance in the post. Behind double-doubles from junior Aaliyah Edwards and grad transfer Dorka Juhász, UConn dominated in the paint, outscoring Georgetown 30-10 and Marquette 48-8 down low. As Auriemma told his team postgame, “games are won in the lane,” and the Huskies proved that in the quarters and semis.
In addition to physical and productive post play, UConn is getting healthier at the right time. Sophomore Caroline Ducharme returned to the court late in the regular season and, despite a scary moment in the quarterfinals where she took an elbow to the head, returned to action against Marquette. Also back in the lineup as of Saturday is prolific sophomore shooting guard Azzi Fudd. While she struggled to find her shot in the quarters and semis, having an extra guard, especially one of her caliber, is a massive boost for the Huskies. In the first two games of the tournament, UConn’s depth allowed them to experiment with new and different rotations, and gave their starters the chance to grab a breath on the bench.
“It feels amazing knowing that you have people to come off the bench and just give you a little break,” said UConn guard Nika Mühl. “I feel like that’s a huge relief for us…There’s people that can come in for them if they foul too much. So it’s amazing and I feel like ten players available at the right time.”
When redshirt wing Aubrey Griffin is firing on all cylinders, she is scary good. Her athleticism, speed and wingspan combined make her a lethal defender and quick-cutting, efficient scorer on the wing. As The Next‘s Hunter Cruse wrote earlier this season, she is the “epitome of modern basketball.” In Sunday’s matchup against Marquette, Griffin exploded for 11 points on 4-for-4 shooting. Her jam-packed stat line also included seven rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Griffin averages 12.5 points and seven rebounds per game for UConn. She is the type of player that shows flashes of dominance on the court and can take over a game defensively with her quick hands and sneaky movements. Her best play has come when UConn is healthy and she can put pressure on opposing defenses who may leave her open in favor of UConn’s dominant bigs like Aaliyah Edwards or sharp-shooting guards like graduate transfer Lou Lopez Sénéchal and Azzi Fudd.
“When Aubrey [plays like she did on Sunday] there really isn’t much on the basketball court that she can’t get accomplished. And she impacts the game at every level. And hopefully her confidence level is really high right now,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma.
“I think her mind is is in the right place right now and [if] we can get that from her the rest of this tournament and beyond — we’re a completely different team, completely different.”
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No. 2 seed Villanova
Path to final
While the Huskies won their first two tournament games by a combined 59 points, Villanova outscored their opponents by just three points across both games. On Saturday, the Wildcats survived a thriller against No. 7 seed DePaul by just one point, 71-70. Truthfully, it was more like DePaul handed Villanova the win at the end, missing four key free throws and committing a foolish foul in the final moments of the game. Sunday’s game was another nail-biter, as Villanova defeated Creighton 63-61 in a game that went down to the wire.
In each of Villanova’s victories, senior Maddy Siegrist delivered masterful performances. On Saturday, she scored 26 points (11-of-22 from the field) and contributed 14 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Against Creighton in the semis, Siegrist scored a whopping 37 points (14-of-21 from the field) and padded the stat sheet with 11 rebounds and four assists. In the final moments of the game, she pulled down a crucial defensive rebound with three seconds on the clock to secure the game for the Wildcats.
“I think we knew coming into this tournament that every game was going to be a battle,” Siegrist said. “And we practice late-game situations all the time. Just trying to stay calm and execute down the stretch. I think we’ve been able to do that the last two games.”
The Wildcats have struggled against top competition this season, going 0-5 in games against ranked opponents. Three of those losses have been by less than 10 points, though, including regular season matchups against UConn in Hartford on Jan. 29 (63-58) and at home on Feb. 18 (60-51). Villanova is slated as a 4-seed in ESPN‘s most recent bracketology, meaning they would host the first two rounds in the NCAA tournament.
Last season, the Villanova was a “bubble team,” seated just on the periphery of the NCAA tournament pool. The Wildcats entered the field as an 11-seed, and fell to 3-seed Michigan on the Wolverines’ home court. This year, they hope to take fate into their own hands by securing a top-16 seed and having the opportunity to advance to the Sweet Sixteen without leaving campus. With a win against UConn in the BIG EAST Tournament final, Villanova may even have yet a higher NCAA Tournament ceiling.
Basketball is a team sport, of course, and Maddy Siegrist alone cannot carry the team to a BIG EAST title over top dog UConn. Villanova needs to distribute the scoring and as The Next‘s Kobe Mosley wrote, the team relies on its supporting cast for success.
Enter Lucy Olsen. The sophomore guard averages 12.3 points and 3.9 assists per game. She is a key distributor for the Wildcats and has emerged as their second option behind Maddy Siegrist. In the quarterfinals, it was Olsen’s free throw with 0.7 seconds left to play lifted Villanova to a one-point win. She ended the contest with 19 points and seven assists.
In game two, Olsen was a bit of a no-show. She scored just two points on 1-for-5 shooting and didn’t bring the same efficiency she showed in game one. Besides Maddy Siegrist, no other Wildcat scored in double figures.
Olsen’s second game output won’t cut it against UConn. She needs to show up and not only be a solid distributor to teammates (especially Siegrist), but she needs to put points on the board as well. If she can score closer to her average of 12 points, she gives Villanova a chance to pull off the upset against the 1-seed UConn.
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The final showdown
This evening’s BIG EAST Tournament final has plenty of storylines to consider. Will Maddy Siegrist lead Villanova to conference glory? With this be the game that Azzi Fudd finds her shooting rhythm? How will Aubrey Griffin and Lucy Olsen impact the game for their respective teams? Can UConn be dethroned?
BIG EAST women’s basketball is in a super healthy place right now. The competition is fierce and the parity is strong. Villanova finished just one game behind UConn for the regular season title, a couple rimmed shots or late-game calls away from being the top team in the conference. To beat the Huskies in Connecticut during the month of March, they will need to come out and hit all the right notes and force UConn to make mistakes with the ball. If they can do that, they have a good chance of winning this matchup and heading back to Pennsylvania with the BIG EAST Tournament trophy in hand.
“Your ultimate goal is to get to that championship game,” said Villanova head coach Denise Dillon. “Everyone talks in conference play of winning a championship. So you’ve got to do a lot of work in order to get there. So this team has done what’s necessary to get there, and they’re familiar with UConn, and they know to beat the best you’ve got to be a lot better. So we’ve got work to do.”