Geno Auriemma, a man rarely at a loss for words, seemed awed by Connecticut’s performance in the NCAA Tournament second round game Monday in Storrs. After his team dismantled Syracuse in a rematch of last year’s title game, the loquacious coach was left shaking his head.
“They were good,” he said. “You’ve got to give it to them, they were really good today.”
And they certainly were. In their 94-64 rout, the Huskies had 30 assists on 33 baskets, they shot 62.3 percent from the floor and 52.2 percent on three-pointers, led by Kia Nurse’s 9-12. They beat Syracuse by 30, and barely tried to score in the fourth period.
“We wanted to focus on throwing the first punch today,” Nurse said. “And really stepping out and dominating and imposing our will, and I think we did a good job at that.”
The Huskies entered the game with 108 consecutive victories, and a separate streak of 24 wins over the Orange.
The Syracuse approach to basketball consists of three base presumptions: Shoot lots of three-pointers; press full-court on defense for 40 minutes; and foul often enough that the officials will stop calling those fouls.
They stuck with their game plan, and in the first quarter, UConn shredded the press and took full advantage of the Orange team’s inability to recover. The Huskies were 12-18 shooting in the first quarter, taking a 28-11 lead. The score was 57-29 at the half, and the game was effectively over.
It was Nurse’s night offensively, however, as she hit eight of ten threes in the first half. Syracuse did not intentionally leave her open, but they were unable to adjust when UConn shifted her normal role in the offense.
“Normally on their press offense, [Nurse is] back, having the ball,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman explained. “And they converted their offense and put her down in the corner. We expected her to be on the wing, and she was open in the corner.”
Hillsman did not explain why it took 20 minutes to adjust to Nurse’s shooting. Nurse herself credited her teammates for the open looks.
“Because our passing was so crisp and right on point, we were getting open & knocking down the shots,” she said. “If you look at a lot of the open shots, you’ll see there were two or three great screens before that, that let us get open.”
Crisp passing, indeed. The Huskies had 64 assists in the last two games, on 76 made field goals, an astonishing 84 percent assist rate. By comparison, Syracuse had just eight assists on 26 baskets (.307) in this game.
In two games in the Tournament, Nurse scored 53 points, hit 15-19 threes (79 percent), and 18-23 total attempts (78 percent). She also had nine assists.
But as impressive as Nurse’s effort was, this was a team victory. The Huskies were aware that two No. 1 seeds had barely survived the second round yesterday, and they made sure that would not happen in Storrs.
Only Alexis Peterson was effective for the Orange, and she did it on pure athleticism with little help from her teammates. She had 16 going into the locker room, and her team had just three assists in the half while UConn had 20. Syracuse did manage to shoot 57 percent in the second quarter, but nfortunately for them, the Huskies shot 60 percent. The score at the half was 57-29.
The teams traded baskets to start the third period, and Syracuse dropped their first two attempts from beyond the arc. Nurse then hit her ninth of the game – a bank shot that had her almost apologizing that it went in. The third quarter scoring stayed even until the last few minutes, when a Husky mini-run gave them a 29-22 advantage for the quarter at the buzzer. The game score was 86-51.
The fourth quarter was a formality. UConn used clock, Syracuse showed no urgency, and the teams combined for just 21 points. Nurse finished with 29 points, while Peterson finished with an acrobatic 25 for the Orange.
As UConn travels just 80 miles down the highway to the Bridgeport Regional next weekend, they are favorites to win a fifth straight National Championship. Auriemma was asked post-game whether the Huskies could lose.
“Is there a way to stop us?” he repeated. “I think we have to help. I think in order for us to not reach the goals that we have, we have to help the other team. We have help by playing poorly defensively, or miss a lot of shots, and just not play well. And that’s capable of happening.”
“That’s why I always say, these are young kids, and that’s why what they did today is amazing. Because none of them have ever been in this situation in their past history in the NCAA tournament.”
Someone is going to have to prove that this team with just one senior starter (Saniya Chong, who was scoreless tonight) can be forced to beat themselves. They are now 33-0 on the season, hoping to win just four more games in the next two weekends. Stopping them will be very difficult. If they play the way they did on this day, it is not going to happen.