By Arnie Leshin
One big burst in the third quarter was more than enough as the 2nd-ranked University of Connecticut women’s basketball team dominated Minnesota, 88-58, in the first round Saturday morning of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament played at the Bahamas.
It was the second straight win for the young and talented Huskies, with senior guard Christyn Williams scoring a career-high 31 points on 12-for-14 sharpshooting that included 3-of-4 3s, 4-of-4 free throws, four rebounds, three assists, one steal, only one turnover and only four personal fouls.
It was a game that was close early on, with UConn on top 24-18 after one quarter and 47-35 at halftime. But with sophomore Player of the Year phenom guard Paige Bueckers only good for 8 points, it was her leadership that was more of a key.
Still unsettled on the offensive with five freshmen on the roster of an even younger team that went 28-2 last season before losing by two points to Texas in the NCAA semifinals, but there were only problems when the versatile Bueckers took a break.
But when head coach Geno Auriemma, owner of a record 11 national championships, put her back in, it brought a much better offense and defense. Taking fewer shots, Bueckers still came away with eight assists, three steals, eight rebounds, two blocks, and not a single turnover.
“No problem,” said the 5-foot-11 Bueckers, who followed Williams and now freshman recruit guard Azzi Fudd as high school Players of the Year, “but I do whatever it takes when on the court.”
That’s right on target, for each time she left the bench, there was no stopping the Huskies, who routed visiting Arkansas, 95-80, in the opener and avenged one of the two setbacks from last year.
Auriemma, with bench strength he hasn’t had in some time, began subbing at about the halfway point of the first quarter. He inserted the 5-11 Fudd, 6-2 graduate transfer Dorka Julasz, and while Fudd missed her first 3-point try, Julasz made an immediate field goal.
Three minutes later, Bueckers got her initial rest of the young season after playing all 40 minutes versus the Razorbacks. She got about a one-minute rest before coming in for a red-hot Williams alongside Fudd, 5-10 sophomore Nika Muhl and 6-2 freshman Caroline Ducharme, but UConn still struggled as the Gophers used a 13-6 run to trim a 15-point deficit to six.
Then Bueckers and company took over as she, Williams, and 6-2 junior Evina Westbrook made up 20 of the Huskies 24 total points in rapid order.
Auriemma began the second half with the same starting five and back-to-back baskets from Bueckers and 3-pointer from Williams brought UConn a 20-point lead on a 14-0 run. From, Minnesota (3-2) was stymied and couldn’t keep up with the Huskies passing skills and teamwork on offense and quick hands on defense that forced 16 turnovers.
Westbrook also had a big game with 16 points on 4-for-7 from the field. 5-of-7 freebies, and a quartet of assists and trio of rebounds. Then there was 6-5 junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa who tossed in nine points, brought down eight boards and blocked four shots. Then there was 6-3 Canadian sophomore Aliaya Edwards dropping in 11 points and taking down six rebounds.
On an assist from Bueckers, Williams tossed in a 3 at the two-minute mark of the third quarter as UConn increased its huge advantage to 70-37 as she tied her career high, and then, on an assist from Westbrook, Williams’ layup became her 31st point and a career high.
Williams had 21 of her team’s 42 first-half points. She often paired up with Nelson-Ododa to create multiple assist-and-score backdoor plays, while Williams played 17:43 of the first half ahead of Bueckers’ 16:45.
“We are young just like last year and maybe more talented and experienced,” said Auriemma, “but we can only get better with this group. Paige is still the leader and the players realize it.”
Now in his 36th season as head coach, Auriemma now plays the winner of the Syracuse-South Florida contest on Sunday for the chance to play in Monday’s championship game. Always breaking records, the Huskies have now won 60-straight regular-season tournament games.
They were 33-for-53 from the floor (62.4 percent), 8-for-20 in 3s, 14-for-17 from the charity stripe following a poor performance there against Arkansas, out rebounded the Gophers, 34-19, had more assists, 24-11, less turnovers, and five blocks to none by the Big Ten team.
“I’m glad to have played so well,” Williams said, “because I told the media that I wanted to be a more consistent player and bring her aggressiveness from the NCAA tournament into every game.”
As for a fourth-straight Player of the Year recruit, Auriemma hasn’t gotten a No. 1 this time, but did reel in a pair of top 5s from the 2022 signing class in gaining 6-3 forward Isuneh “Ice” Brady and 6-2 forward Ayanna Patterson.
“During the recruiting period for his class”, Auriemma said, “we set out to find a couple of bigs who could play multiple positions, and I think we found the two best in the country.”
That’s why he’s often called “Geno the genius”.