March 10, 2024 

Three key questions heading into the BIG EAST semifinals

Which team has what it takes to reach the finals?

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — It was another thrilling day of BIG EAST basketball on Saturday, March 10 as eight teams faced off for a spot in Sunday’s semifinal. In the end, here’s how the results shook out:

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  • No. 1 UConn 86, No. 9 Providence 53
  • No. 5 Marquette 50, No. 4 Villanova 48
  • No. 2 Creighton 72, No. 7 Seton Hall 65
  • No. 6 Georgetown 53, No. 3 St. John’s 44

On Sunday, UConn takes on Marquette at 2:30 p.m. ET and Creighton will face Georgetown at 5 p.m. ET. Heading into the BIG EAST Tournament semifinals, there are three key questions that need answers.

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Can UConn win without Aaliyah Edwards?

A near-capacity, pro-UConn crowd hushed to a silence in the third quarter of their quarterfinal matchup against No. 9 Providence as senior Aaliyah Edwards was down on the floor in pain. It was the eerie silence of a fanbase that’s faced a slew of devastating injuries over the past three seasons and feared the worst. After a few minutes on the floor, the All-BIG EAST First Team forward was taken off the court by the UConn training staff, covering her face with a towel. Edwards didn’t return to the game, but did emerge courtside in the fourth quarter to thunderous applause, aided by medical gauze in each nostril. Her status for Sunday’s semifinal is unknown.

“Once Aaliyah went down, we kind of called a huddle, and we were talking about how locked in we have to be, how extra focused we’re going to have to be stepping in for Aaliyah who does so much for us, particularly rebounding,” UConn senior guard Paige Bueckers said. “Aaliyah does a great job on the boards, so we knew that was a hole that we needed to fill … everybody just was major focused and major locked in. We knew we had to step it up for Aaliyah.”

Edwards’ injury ended up being a turning point for UConn, a team all too familiar with sudden roster shake-ups. When Edwards went to the locker room with the UConn training staff at the 6:02 mark in the third quarter, the Huskies led the Friars by just six points, 41-35. Over the remaining minutes of the quarter, UConn strung together a 21-10 run, which pretty much put the game away as the No. 1 seed took a 62-45 lead into the game’s final frame.

“I think we showed a lot of maturity during that stretch, and a lot of toughness and character,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “Because they’re out there playing, and you know you’re not coming out. That’s a tough way to play basketball and know that [you’re] not going to get a breather no matter what.”

In moments of adversity, having the best player on the floor helps. Paige Bueckers led the way for the Huskies with an elite stat line of 29 points, nine rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks.

“[Paige] spends a lot of time preparing for these moments. She’s very much invested in the game,” Auriemma said. “She’s not somebody that just shows up, plays and goes home. She’s very, very invested. She believes in herself. She has tremendous belief in herself, tremendous confidence in herself and expects to do well in these situations. Just like some people expect to miss, she expects to conquer every situation.”

The play of Bueckers, especially her rebounding performance, filled the gap of Edwards’ absence. That said, if Edwards misses Sunday’s semifinal game against a talented Marquette team, the Huskies have very little margin for error with their seven player rotation. Their biggest deficiency is in the paint, and freshman Ice Brady has been inconsistent in her minutes this season. On Saturday she held it down in the lane in Edwards’ absence, especially on the defensive end. She ended the game with eight points, three rebounds, one block and one steal.

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UConn forward Ice Brady stepped up in the absence of teammate Aaliyah Edwards during the 2024 BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinals. (Photo Credit | Domenic Allegra)

“[Ice] probably most of this year treats herself like, well, you know, if I don’t have it, Aaliyah will do it. I’m just here to kind of give everybody a breather and then if I’m good, I’m good. If I’m not any good, that’s okay. We’re going to win anyway. When you think like that, you get careless and sloppy, and you don’t put enough pressure on yourself to get it right,” Auriemma said postgame on Saturday. “I think once Aaliyah got hurt, I think the light went off and she looked around and went — there is no other option, I’m the only option… I think she grew up a little bit today. Hopefully there’s carry-over tomorrow.”

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Will Marquette perform offensively?

There’s no sugar-coating it — Saturday was a bad shooting night for two of the conference’s top-tier teams, Villanova and Marquette. Villanova shot 22-for-63 (34.9%) from the field while the Golden Eagles went 16-for-48 (33.3%) in a low-scoring 50-48 Marquette victory.

“‘Nova and us both like to score a little more than we did today,” Marquette head coach Megan Duffy deadpanned in the postgame press conference.

Whether it was tournament jitters or just an off night, it was an uncharacteristically poor output from Duffy’s squad — which ranks No. 27 in the nation with a 45.8% field goal percentage. Looking towards the semifinal, Marquette needs to leave Saturday’s shooting performance in the past and not let it shake their confidence. On Sunday they’ll be playing the Connecticut Huskies on what Duffy describes as “kind of their home floor” in Uncasville, CT.

“You emotionally have to come back down. Whether it’s UConn’s game or our game, you have to settle yourself back down,” Duffy said. “As you play multiple games through the week, physically you’re not going to get any fresher or feel any better that way. It’s the opposite. So mentally just focused on the game plan and keeping it simple that way.”

Marquette’s All-BIG EAST First Team selection, 6’2 forward Liza Karlen, has been the team’s constant all season. This season she averaged career highs in points per game (18.0) and rebounds per game (7.3). The senior scored in double-figures in all but one regular season game. Karlen went 5-for-15 from the field on Saturday, a performance she hopes to quickly put behind her.

“I’ve always approached it as I can’t control the ball going in or not. I can control how confident I am shooting the shots and what my shot selection is,” Karlen said. “So I work a lot with Coach Duffy and [associate head coach Justine Raterman] of what shots are good shots and what shots to hunt and what shots might not be the best shots for me to take … not necessarily focusing on if the ball goes in or not and just focusing on what I can control when it comes to shot-taking.”

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Marquette forward Liza Karlen has been the program’s reliable leader throughout the entire 2023-24 season. (Photo Credit | Domenic Allegra)

Marquette is a very good team that spent several weeks this season in the AP Top 25. For a third consecutive season, the Golden Eagles and Huskies will face off in the BIG EAST Tournament semifinals as the No. 1 and No. 5 seeds, respectively. In their two match-ups this season, UConn defeated Marquette by an average of 28.5 points. Despite the results earlier this season, Duffy embraces the challenge.

“I thought we played some good basketball in the two matchups. But as we know with UConn, they can make runs so fast,” Duffy said. “We’ll have to really make sure we’re connected [and] that we don’t let it go out of hand and stay solid. At this point you don’t have a lot of prep time. You have to kind of turn the page quickly after this one and enjoy this March Madness and the moment of being in the semis.”

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Can the Hoyas keep rolling?

While walking through the handshake line after his team’s 53-44 upset win over St. John’s, Georgetown interim head coach Darnell Haney hugged his star player Kelsey Ransom. He then started jubilantly high-fiving game staff seated at the scorers table. For the first time since 2019, Georgetown women’s basketball is headed to the BIG EAST Tournament semifinals. How were they able to meet the moment to survive and advance?

“We tend to approach every day the same way in this program. Every practice, lift, film session, game, no matter the size of the stage,” said Hoyas fifth-year senior Graceann Bennett. “So it feels pretty normal, and that’s a huge credit to how we prepare. We work really hard in practice so that in the game, thinking and being in the moment is really easy. It’s been a joy to just be present and enjoy it and be here with good competition and great teammates.”

Defeating the Red Storm required discipline and lock-down defense on their All-BIG EAST First Team guard Unique Drake. Drake, last season’s BIG EAST Sixth-Woman of the Year was this season’s squad’s primary offensive option. The redshirt senior went for 18.0 points per game, good for third in the BIG EAST. 

“When you talk about heart and soul and you look at the team and how we have to play — you know, you look at a kid like Unique Drake, who she struggled tonight. It’s not a secret. She struggled. But for a kid who has been with me for five years, has given me everything that she has, stayed with the program through good times and even hard times, whether it be tough seasons or even through COVID, she’s one of those [players] that when you put it in a category of heart and soul, she’s one of them. You don’t get that chance to coach players for that long period of time and probably won’t again.

“I just think that we breed a certain level of toughness in our program that we expect, and today we didn’t meet it, but I think that’s what’s carried us through the better part of the season.”

The Hoyas are playing with tremendous heart and confidence headed into Sunday’s semifinal. They’ve faced Creighton just once this season, a narrow 77-72 defeat at home in late January. Can the Hoyas pull off the upset this time with a ticket to the BIG EAST Tournament finals on the line?

“It’s tournament time. It’s not about the running and it ain’t about the practice — it’s about mental preparation,” Coach Haney said. “It’s about being mentally prepared and mentally locked in to do the things you need to do to be successful. That takes a lot of film. That takes having a foundation already so that we can just switch it like that.”

“We have to make sure that we’re prepared to go out and perform and go out and do things the Georgetown way. We’ll be just fine.”

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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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