February 20, 2024 

Sights and sounds: UConn defeats Creighton in heavyweight BIG EAST battle

Geno Auriemma clinches second place on all-time wins list

HARTFORD, Conn. — Just as the Week 16 AP Poll dropped at noon ET on Monday, the ball tipped between No. 15 UConn (No. 1 in BIG EAST) and No. 21 Creighton (No. 2 in BIG EAST) in Hartford. Leaving behind the frigid February cold for a few hours, a capacity XL Center crowd filled the arena for some matinee hoops between the conference’s top two teams.

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The squads traded punches in the first half, each scoring exactly 15 points in the first quarter and 16 points in the second quarter. Creighton guard Lauren Jensen led all scorers with 11 points on the half, followed by teammate Morgan Maly (10 points). UConn guards Paige Bueckers and Nika Mühl led the Huskies with eight points apiece. The Huskies outrebounded the Bluejays 25-20 and outscored them 12-6 in the paint. Turnovers were low (Creighton, four; UConn, five) and both teams strung together impressive eight-point runs during the first half — with Creighton’s coming in the final 3:21 of the half.

Part of Creighton’s scoring run included technical-foul free throws after UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s chirping at the officials escalated to screaming profanities. He’d been giving the refs an earful as they ran down the court all half and finally he had seen enough. As is UConn tradition, his assistant coaches restrained him to avoid ejection.

Whether it was the technical foul or stern words by the coaching staff during halftime, UConn looked more poised in the second half. After giving up the first five points of the third quarter to the Bluejays, UConn went on a 17-0 run to take a comfortable 48-36 lead with 2:45 to go in the quarter. In the third quarter alone, the Huskies scored 27 points, four shy of their total in the entire first half (31). By the end of the quarter, Aaliyah Edwards (16), Paige Bueckers (15), Ashlynn Shade (13) and Nika Mühl (11) were all in double figures.

“The third quarter was kind of catastrophic after we took that five-point-lead momentum shift, and I certainly should have called timeout sooner and probably used a second one there,” said Creighton head coach Jim Flanery.

“It just kind of unraveled a little too quickly in the third quarter for as veteran of a group as we have. Part of that is on [me] the for [not] using more than one timeout using and one earlier — probably just got rattled, and unfortunately that was the ball game.”

UConn outscored Creighton only 15-12 in the game’s final frame, but the damage had been done in the third. The Huskies left the XL Center with a 73-53 win, securing at least a share of the BIG EAST regular season title and locking up the No. 1 seed in March’s conference tournament.

“I thought today was one of our more gratifying wins,” Auriemma said postgame. “I think I felt like after yesterday’s practice, I could tell that we looked a little bit drained. We looked mentally and physically tired. And you know this is what happens at this time of the year. … Halftime came at the right time, and we [went] out in the second half, and I think Paige maybe got her second wind and was able to get some space. We changed up things a little bit and spread the floor a little bit more.”

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Geno passes Coach K on wins list

With Monday’s victory, Auriemma passed legendary former Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski for second place all time in total career wins. With associate head coach Chris Dailey by his side the entire way, Auriemma has now won 1,203 career games, all as head coach at UConn. In that time, the pair has earned 11 national championships, more than 50 conference regular-season and tournament championships, the first- and second-longest winning streaks in college basketball history (111 and 90 games, respectively) and six undefeated seasons.

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“I’m probably like a lot of our fans. We made it look so easy. It was never easy. But we made it look so easy for so long that you almost forget,” Auriemma said. “For me now, it’s like going back to the ’80s and ’90s, where you would have to play great and you knew that every game that you won was special. I’ve always said the only thing worse than losing is winning all the time.”

Over the past three seasons, UConn has seemed mortal. Talent around the country has dispersed across other top programs around the nation, and, at the same time, the Huskies have faced an unprecedented surge of injuries. A program that once seemed so unbeatable that there was national conversation about whether they were “bad for the sport” is still among the nation’s elite but no longer stands alone at the top.

“Maybe if we had all 14 of our players, maybe we would just be like we’ve always been here at UConn. But what we’ve gone through the last couple of years — you appreciate it way more, way more, and you appreciate your players more.”

His current players — all of whom were decades away from being born when he took over as UConn head coach in 1985 — have known nothing but UConn dominance in their lifetimes. While no player on the current UConn roster has won a national title — which has seemed routine over the past two decades — the wins along the way have all mattered.

“Obviously, when we come to Connecticut, what they’re really known for his national championships; but for us as a team, just the mini-milestones along the way, and continue to build great habits and practice. I think you just sort of just enjoy those many milestones,” Bueckers said postgame. “I know the goal right in front of us is to win the BIG EAST regular-season championship, so that’s what we’re focused on right now. And then of course, celebrating [Coach Auriemma] and the legacy and his greatness. So it’s like a celebration everyday with him. But just congratulations to him and not surprised — it’s what he does.”

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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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