UConn beats patient Quinnipiac for 25th straight Sweet 16

Kia Nurse drives into the paint. Photo by Bob Stowall.
Kia Nurse drives into the paint. Photo by Bob Stowall.

Storrs, Conn. – In a game between Connecticut’s two best teams, no one could fault the effort.

Quinnipiac’s proximity to UConn, the friendship and respect between their coaches, and the home-state example have all contributed to the fearless, hard-working, capable team that the Bobcats have become. Winners of three of their last four tournament games, Quinnipiac has become the dominant team in their own league, going undefeated this season and winning the MAAC Tournament. They entered Monday’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against the Huskies on a 23-game winning streak.

That streak included a 86-72 victory over Miami in the first round, just as they had beaten them last year in the second round to make the first Sweet 16 in school history.

But the Bobcats had never faced UConn in the Big Dance. In their only previous meeting in 1998, the Huskies had the 117-20 rout. At that time, Quinnipiac had just made the transition to Division I, and that pasting remains the largest margin of victory in UConn history. Tonight, the Huskies prevailed, 71-46.

The Bobcats are a much better team than they have been. They feature a disciplined offense that spreads the floor, passes from side to side, and drives and kicks to outside shooters. Three athletes average 40 percent from three-point territory. And although they are an up-tempo team, coach Trish Fabbri took a lesson from the Huskies’ demolition of St. Francis on Saturday, and retooled the offense to burn most of the shot clock on every possession.

St. Francis’ decision to play and up-tempo, shoot-quick game in the first round in Storrs simply allowed UConn to do what it really does absolutely the best: run and score in transition. The final score, even with the Husky starters limited to 29 or fewer minutes, was 140-52. Fabbri was not going to fall into that trap.

Quinnipiac executed the new game plan remarkably well. Most importantly, they protected the ball, turning it over just seven times against perhaps the best defense in the country. UConn scored just eight points off those turnovers. Both of those numbers were season lows for the Huskies, who normally scores more than 20 or more points off turnovers.

Ultimately, UConn’s superior size and talent won the game, as they have in the second round every year since 1993, when they lost to Louisville. This year marked their 25th year advancing to the round of 16, but it might have been one of the most taxing games, as Husky players and coaches described it as “a grind.”

The Bobcat defense has not received much notice, but they are active and coordinated, communicating well. They also did a creditable job boxing out to avoid UConn’s second chance points to six. Despite the major height advantage of the top seed, Quinnipiac was reasonably effective for three quarters at blocking passing lanes into the post. When the Huskies did get the ball to their posts, however, the Bobcats had no way to stop them. Napheesa Collier and Azura Stevens were UConn’s leading scorers, hitting 14 of 17 attempts. Half of the team’s points were scored in the paint.

As tough and persistent as Quinnipiac was, the Huskies shot 50 percent for the first half and 56 percent for the game, including 6-12 from three-point range and 13-14 from the line.

UConn is known for its ability to begin the second half with an intensity which overwhelms an opponent. In this game, however, the Bobcats came out with heroic defensive energy, forcing two quick turnovers, and matching their host’s scoring for the first six minutes of the third period. But as the second half unfolded, the Huskies steadily increased their lead. Although Quinnipiac harassed them like few other teams have, UConn patiently moved the ball around to find someone open for a score.

Quinnipiac’s slow-down strategy had taken a toll on the team, as they finished shooting just 30 percent – 10 percent lower than their average. Because they did not begin their offense until the shot clock was half expired, many of their shots were rushed, and nearly all were tightly contested.

“We were just a little bit choppy with a lack in prep with changing our whole offensive style,” Fabbri said. “I do think that we were just a little bit rushed when we did come open to get that shot off.”

“We were just a little bit quick and not in our complete rhythm offensively. I thought we handled the whole first half and how we wanted to go about playing them.”

Junior Napheesa Collier was dominant around the basket for the Huskies, scoring 23 points on 9-11 shooting, and 6-6 from the line. Redshirt junior Jen Fay led the Bobcast with 12 points, but she shot just 5-18 on the night.

Auriemma has praised Quinnipiac for several years, and this game only confirmed his respect for the way Fabbri has developed her program.

“They’ve established themselves in their league,” he said, “to the point where I think they expect to be in this game every year.”

“That’s the level that they’re at: to be able to be there last year and win and then to lose some players to graduation and have a younger team this year and still be able to be in that second round game. That takes a long time to get to that point. And I think that they are there. They feel that [they belong here].”

Aryn McClure looks for an outlet. Photo by Jim Hassett.
Aryn McClure looks for an outlet. Photo by Jim Hassett.

Although Quinnipiac lost, they are among a group of teams proving that mid-major teams have become competitive in the women’s game. At the same time the Huskies and Bobcats were playing, 11-seed Buffalo stunned third-seeded Florida State to move on to the Albany regional with UConn, and 11-seed Central Michigan shocked third-seed Ohio State, 95-78.

Auriemma was effusive in his excitement over the mid-majors’ success.

“If you look around the country, the mid-major programs are a lot better than people think and [Quinnipiac is] one of the best,” he said.

“You know, in women’s basketball the mid majors don’t get any respect. On the men’s side they do, but not on the women’s side. So for this year to have what’s happening in the mid-majors, I think that’s like the best thing that’s ever happened.”

UConn moves on to play Duke this Saturday in Albany.