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BIG EAST FINAL

By Arnie Leshin 
The surging University of Connecticut women’s basketball team has a chance at redemption tonight.
After the scheduled Jan. 6 Big East Conference game against Villanova was cancelled due to coronavirus pandemic issues with the suburban Philadelphia school, the new date was Feb. 10th at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.
 Nova arrived and was set to go, but unfortunately the Huskies weren’t. They had just handed No. 7 Tennessee an embarrassing 75-56 setback, and the day after they played Villanova, they walloped Big East foe DePaul, 84-64. But Geno Auriemma’s team had injury problems at that time and were without sophomore All-America Paige Bueckers until maybe Match, freshman standout Caroline Ducharme was sidelined with a foot problem, and 6-5 senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa was a last-minute loss with a groin injury.
And the end result was a nightmare to UConn. It was a close call, a 72-69 upset that brought an abrupt halt to the Huskies’ 169-conference game win streak. Since that defeat UConn has won nine straight and is 24-5 overall and the Big East regular-season champion at 16-1, the lone loss to Villanova, which will make the scene in Hartford at 23-7overall and 15-4 in conference.
And this is now March that Auriemma is very familiar with in hauling in a record 11 national championships. Now Geno the genius is back at full strength, his roster is loaded with depth, talent, experience and are looking to jump from No. 7 in the national rankings after No. 1 South Carolina was stunned by Kentucky, 64-62, on a last-second basket after a huge comeback, No. 4 Louisville blow a 12-point lead over Miami and went down 61-59 on a buzzer bucket, and No. 6 LSU also fell to Kentucky, 78-63.
That opens a road for the Huskies, but there’s not a clear path unless they get past Nova at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. It’s a must win that would advance them to the Bridgeport Regional and probably zoom them ahead of Louisville, LSU, and perhaps right behind the Gamecocks. Originally a No. 2 seed in the Greensboro Region, now they a shot as one of the four top seeds.
And Auriemma is in business as the stretch run begins. He has the luxury of a renewed depth after eight of his dozen players missed at least two games or more because of injuries or illness this season. The Hall of Fame coach in his 37th year with the school from Storrs now has a rotation that goes nine deep and includes the all-everything Bueckers recently returning.
In the third win in a row Sunday over Marquette in the Big East semis, Auriemma played all nine in the first quarter. Eight played 18 minutes or more with four scoring in double figures. This is a rather unfamiliar look for Auriemma, who has won many titles with maybe six or seven players he would account for. Now he can sub out of the entire lineup and bring in a new one that allows players to recharge on the bench and provide needed sparks once back on the court.
“No one,” he says, “has been out there long enough where you could say they got a worn out this year or they got enough stamina that they can go a whole season or whole tournament. I’d say we are in a perfect situation in terms of we have players that can go a lot of minutes because they haven’t played hardly at all this year. There’s this feeling now that we know we’re gonna get (points) we just don’t from where.”
The Huskies will be looking for their 20th Big East tournament win and second straight since rejoining the league last season. A win would give the program its 27th overall conference tournament crown and eight straight spanning back its time in the American Athletic and Big East.
With UConn now without a single weak link in its lineup, Nova (or Wildcats if you like) will now have to face the 6-5 Nelson-Ododa, 6-5 Dorka Juhasz, a senior graduate who played for Ohio State and was All-Big Ten, the versatile 6-2 Ducharme, starting 6-3sophomore wing Aaliyad Edwards, 5-11 freshman and National Player of the Year Azzi Fidd, senior and a previous Player of the Year starting guard, Christyn Williams, a sophomore who starts at point guard in Nika Muhl, and the key reserve is 6-2 senior guard Evina Westbrook.
 
And drum roll please, the return of Buckers, and you can toss in 6-5 freshman Amari DeBerry and 6-5 sophomore Piath G(Iabriel. Auriemma in fact has been going with two starting lineups, he’ll bring in Westbrook, and won’t hesitate to send DeBerry and Gabriel onto the court. The more the merrier and Geno the genius is now more relaxed and with a all-star crew. 
 
Villanova is rather young with four freshmen, three sophomores, three juniors, one senior, and a graduate senior. Its most versatile player is 6-1 junior Maddy SIegrist, it’s tallest is 6-4 sophomore Kylie Swider, it’s starting point guard is 5-11 junior Brooke Mullin, with 5-9 freshman Lucy Olsen the first reserve in running the offense, 6-foot grade senior Brianna Herlihy goes at forward, 5-9 freshman Zanai Jones also gets the call in the backcourt, and also playing forward is 6-1 sophomore Lior Garzon.  
 
With Bueckers back, Auriemma now has three former high school players of the year and a new look to show Villanova. 

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