March 31, 2024 

UConn back in business with Sweet 16 win over Duke

The Huskies bent under the weight of intense defensive pressure, foul trouble and their relentless lack of depth - but they did not break. And their reward is a 28th trip to the regional finals.

PORTLAND, Ore. – When the buzzer sounded, and a 53-45 win over Duke was complete, UConn was all business. Back to the business, as it were, of being UConn. Feet on the ground. High fives. On to the next one. The Final Four was in sight.

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In a game that was not exactly a feast for the eyes or the senses, the Huskies bent under the weight of intense defensive pressure, foul trouble, and their relentless lack of depth – but they did not break. Their reward is a 28th trip to the regional finals and a very compelling appointment on Monday night at Moda Center with USC.

Paige Bueckers vs. JuJu Watkins, a tantalizing follow-up to the day’s opener, the national championship rematch of LSU and Iowa in Albany. For a sport that’s basking in the glow of star players, and the attention and interest those players have brought, it’s a perfect on-ramp to Final Four weekend in Cleveland.

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But first, the Huskies need to recover from a literal knock-down-drag-out with a Duke team that might have lulled them into a false sense of security with a 13-point first half and a 20-point deficit before charging back within five points in the final minute.

Geno Auriemma talked on Friday, the day before the game, that he liked his team’s headspace this year better than last year, when the Huskies were eliminated in the regional semifinals. The last two seasons have been one injury-induced gut punch after another, but somehow, this season, the shock has worn off, making it a little easier to move forward.

The sight of six UConn players sitting side by side on the bench in street clothes isn’t quite as soul-crushing.

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It doesn’t hurt, of course, to have All-American Bueckers back on the floor, working her magic.
Bueckers finished this game with 24 points and five rebounds in 40 minutes. She has scored 84 points and pulled down 25 rebounds in the first three games of this tournament. She was the glue that held Connecticut together as Duke flew around trying to create chaos. She is intent on making up for last year’s lost season when the Huskies lost in the Sweet 16 and she was powerless to stop it.

“The one thing that Paige is very, very good at, which I think all great players and great leaders, they’re very, very great – they’re very, very good at hiding the things that will make them look like they’re struggling or suffering or they’re [not] confident anymore,” Auriemma said of Bueckers. “Paige would come to the practice facility every day last year to do her rehab and watch practice or whatever. And she was always the most upbeat, positive person in the gym. You knew that when she went home, she was a completely different person at home. You knew that it was killing her and tearing her apart.”

“I know that playing in this tournament this year is why she worked so hard for 12 months to put herself in position to do this. You know, players like her, the players in this tournament … players like her, JuJu and Caitlin and Angel Reese, you can name them, Cardoso and all those great players that South Carolina has, they live for these games, you know?”

Bueckers is here and she is focused on being mentally tough enough to carry her team, even through an ugly win.

“The game was very physical on both ends of the floor. The pace was fast, both sides, trying to push it,” Bueckers said. “So you feel it, but at this point of the season, you’ve got to be mentally tougher. Everybody’s got aches and boo-boos during this time, and it’s just about who powers through it better, who’s mentally tougher.”

Buecker had the help she needed. KK Arnold pitched in 12 points, three rebounds and four assists. Defensively, the Huskies did the job, holding Duke to 32.7% shooting, which was miles better than the 20.8% they shot in the first half. The Blue Devils committed 23 turnovers, leading to 23 UConn points.

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Senior Aaliyah Edwards was limited to 29 minutes with foul trouble, but she came in and hit a huge jumper with 1:06 to go to push the Huskies to 50-43. She then pulled down a huge defensive rebound with 38 seconds to go to keep UConn in control.

“Coach drew up a play, told me to get a bucket and that’s what I did,” Edwards said. “We all made plays and impacted in different ways. It wasn’t just me. It was a team effort. And I think that we could have made some better decisions. But we survived, and we advance.”

Last season, advancing stopped a given for the UConn program. But thanks to a gritty, grubby day on the floor in Portland, it’s back to business as usual.

“At this time of the year, you’re staring at the end of your season. So I think players play with a certain amount of desperation and passion,” Auriemma said. “Some of our upperclassmen, they’ve played, and they’ve lost in the Final Four. They’ve lost in the Sweet 16. And they’ve lost in the national championship game. So they’ve had a lot of experiences throughout their four years here.

“They understand that it’s USC versus UConn, not Paige versus JuJu. Because if we try to make it that – and this has happened a lot – somebody on their team will get 30, and then we’ll all go home and go, yeah, we lost, but we did a great job on JuJu, man. Congratulations. It’s got to be our team versus their team and see how it plays out.”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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