Connecticut struggled its way into their 26th straight Sweet 16 Sunday, as they moved past Buffalo, 84-72.
Napheesha Collier led the Huskies with 27 points and 16 rebounds, while Christyn Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson each added 17.
The Bulls fell behind by 24 points, but mounted a huge comeback in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to eight before running out of time. Free throws gave Connecticut the advantage, but for a time in the final five minutes, it looked like were on the ropes, with the possibility of losing an NCAA Tournament first or second round game for the first time since 1993.
Cierra Dillard led Buffalo with 29 points, six boards and seven assists, despite limping out of the arena in tears with an ankle sprain early in the fourth quarter run. It was unclear whether she would return.
Neither she nor coach Felisha Legette-Jack had any doubt about it, though.
“I know the toughness she’s made of,” Legette-Jack said. “She was not going to let me keep her on the bench.”
Dillard herself refused to let the injury stop her.
“I knew if I went in the locker room, I wasn’t coming back,” she said. “I’m not the type of player to let my teammates down so I’m was [going to] come back out.”
“I don’t care if I have to hop on one leg. But I went to the back corner to make sure I could run on it, tightened up my tape job, and got back out there. I physically had to pull coach over and tell her that I had to go back in. I just got a couple screams out and tightened it up, used that adrenaline and get back out there to help my team…”
It was a game of contrasts for Connecticut. They looked unbeatable as they ran out to leads of 15-0 and 27-6, by shooting 71 percent early in the first period and forcing seven early Bulls turnovers. On the other hand, they were outrebounded in the first half, and surrendered 25 offensive boards during the game. In two games, against low seeds, the Huskies allowed 46 offensive rebounds, resulting in 38 second-chance points.
Connecticut was also woeful from the free throw line, missing 12 of 32 attempts. After hitting 15-29 threes on Friday, they netted just 6-20 Sunday. Then came the fourth quarter, as energized and tenacious Buffalo cut the lead to just eight points three different times. A monumental upset looked possible, though it did not quite happen.
Coach Geno Auriemma had nothing but praise for the Bulls.
“That was a lot of work, that was really hard,” he said. “Even when it looked really easy for long stretches of the game it was hard.”
“There was nothing that we got that we didn’t have to work for. They made life really difficult for us at both ends of the floor. . . . I told the team they weren’t going away and we were going to have to grind it out like you have to do in the NCAA tournament. A lot of credit goes to them and how they played and they just have a lot of tough kids over there. We are going to have to be a lot better but these next three weeks are all about you just have to win.”
Even though the Huskies entered the game with a record of 291-7 in Gampel since the 1993-94 season, Buffalo battled for 40 minutes, putting fear into the hearts of Connecticut fans and players alike as they opened the fourth quarter on an 11-2 run that made their opponents look lost and inept.
Buffalo was playing with joy, while Husky players looked like the team that lost in overtime to Mississippi State in the 2017 Final Four: short-arming mid-range jumpers, driving into double teams, grim of face. Connecticut was saved by its seniors, Samuelson and Collier, who grabbed enough boards and drew enough fouls to hold off the charge and hang on for a victory, 84-72.
Legette-Jack reveled in her team’s effort.
“What a great, great team I have. What fighters I have. What resiliency I was able to be a part of,” she said. “This team was out. They punched us and they tried to knock us out. That’s what great teams do. But tough teams don’t let that punch define them. They keep coming back, and they keep fighting, and we did some unconventional things, put some people in different positions, they just kept coming.”
Connecticut players, by contrast, were both exhausted and shocked by the game.
“This was a really hard game for us,” Collier said. “A win is a win, but we could definitely see some things that we need to work on. It was a grind, and we grinded it out. We are going to keep pushing forward. We are going to look past this and look at what we need to improve on and get ready for our next step.”
An afterthought on officiating.
The referees, Felicia Grinter, Pualani Spurlock, and Mark Resch, called 46 fouls in the game. Seven players ended the game with four or more fouls. These officials appeared to think they were calling a middle-school girls’ game – not a game between highly-skilled and physically strong athletes.
Both coaches, while careful not to criticize the officiating directly, were clearly annoyed.
“There was a lot of things that happened that I didn’t quite get,” Auriemma said. “More travel calls than I’ve seen in a long time, more hand checks, and a lot of touch fouls that were kinda maybe-maybe-not.
“I don’t know that anybody wants to see a game like that A game played that way. It was just hard to get into any kind of a flow. There was a whistle almost every single time down the floor. If a shot went up and somebody rebounded it and there wasn’t a whistle, you were surprised. It was just that kind of a game.”
Legette-Jack was more indirect in her comments.
“I think we have a lot of great officials out here,” she said. “We were in our conference, MAC tournament, and those officials really let us play, and really did a tremendous job of controlling the coaches and controlling the game.
“They accepted the responsibility of what they did wrong. I love when they are really honest about, ‘I just blew it.’ I can live with that. And when they talk to you and make you feel like, “we’re just human.” And when they don’t talk to you and they don’t explain, make things understandable so that we can share, . . . that’s when it gets concerning.”