South Carolina slugfest reveals much about Connecticut

Paige Bueckers launches the ball. David Butler/USA Today.

Connecticut freshman Paige Bueckers scored her 30th point of the game on a deep three-pointer as the buzzer ran down in the last 15 seconds of overtime to seal a four point victory for her team over then-No. 1 South Carolina last week.

In a contest largely defined by defenses, two squads used to scoring in the 80’s were held below 65 points. The Gamecocks, known for their transition game, scored no fast break points.

This story is not about the details of that defense-dominated overtime game, however, but about what it tells us about the Huskies’ season to this point, and what can be expected in the near future.

Freshman superstar

First of all, and most obviously, Bueckers is a remarkable athlete who already dominates both UConn’s roster, and her opponents. Although she is not likely to be Player of the Year, it may well be that the All-American committee cannot ignore her for first team honors.

Bueckers scored the Huskies’ final 13 points against South Carolina, taking over the game after their opponents’ 11-2 run put them ahead by four with 2:28 left in regulation.

Over their next five matchups, from Jan. 31-Feb. 10 (which included wins over No. 17/20 DePaul and No. 1/1 South Carolina) Bueckers averaged 27.6 points, shooting a remarkable .582 from the field and .588 from three. She also averaged 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 steals, and 5.8 assists.

“I think that the most impressive thing about Paige is she plays at the same pace the entire game,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “She goes at a pace that allows her to use her skill. And I think that’s a great quality that usually comes to you a little bit later.”

“I’m always surprised when she shoots it and the ball doesn’t go in. And her defense is getting better all the time, and there’s not much you can say. I mean, she’s that player. She’s that player that, you know, comes along that people talk about: ‘hey, did you see that kid from Connecticut?’ She’s that kid.”

The kids are alright

The Huskies, who took over the No. 1 spot in the AP top 25 poll this week, have six other freshmen besides Bueckers, as well as two sophomores and three juniors. It is by far the youngest UConn team in decades.

The freshmen, in particular, are growing up fast, and several of them have consistently impacted games. The “kids” bring tremendous energy, and a toughness that is missing from the returning juniors (as we’ll discuss later).

The most noticeable of this group is 6-3 Aaliyah Edwards. Her purple and gold braids – a tribute Kobe Bryant – make her stand out immediately, but her pro-ready power forward physique is more impressive. She brings energy, toughness, and remarkable quickness for her size. Once Edwards establishes herself on the low block, no one else in the game can move her off it.

Edwards is one of those players who has a nose for rebounds, and a rare freshmen post player who can finish consistently around the rim. On defense, she can muscle posts away from their comfort zone, but she also has the footwork and quickness to defend at the top of the key. Her confidence and power sometimes gets her in foul trouble, but she can be, and has been, a game changer off the bench.

In recent games, Auriemma has been playing Edwards in tandem with 6-5 junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who (see below) is not fond of banging in the post, but has become a skilled passer.  This high-low combination is becoming a reliable offensive asset.

Nika Muhl, a 5-10 freshmen guard from Croatia, seemed like an afterthought in early games, but has established herself as a reliable starter. She too, appears to have endless energy, and an in-your-face approach that sparks her team.

Although Bueckers is the featured point guard on this team, Muhl has excellent court vision, and Auriemma has used her to relieve the pressure on Bueckers by bringing the ball up court, much as Maite Cazorla did for Sabrina Ionescu for three years at Oregon. She is one of UConn’s few regulars who relishes sorties into the teeth of a defense.

“Nika likes to . . ., break that plane,” Auriemma said. “She likes to go by people, and draw any kind of help.”

“And she’s pretty good at getting rid of it really quickly for one of our shooters. . . .That’s her strength, is finding people whether it’s, you know, getting to the basket and finding people; getting in the lane and finding people; just drawing somebody just enough and finding them.”

Contrary to the offense-heavy stereotype of European athletes, Muhl seems to thrive on the defensive end, and her increased playing time has coincided with a much more organized and consistent defense.

“Nika’s a big part of [improved] communication,” Auriemma said. “She’s a big part of why we’re talking more on defense, why there’s more activity.”

“Because that’s, again, that’s what she does. That’s what she brings. She would tell you she’d rather play defense and get three steals or make a couple plays than make three baskets. That’s who she is. So, her, her being in the lineup has that has changed our defense. We are much more vocal more active and more aggressive defense.”

For pure athleticism off the bench, the Huskies have sophomore Aubrey Griffin, whose energy, rebounding dominance, and speed immediately affect each game that she enters.

“Aubrey comes in and, you know, Aubrey will do 10 things in the first 15 seconds that she’s out there,” Auriemma said. “Five of them will make you think ‘why’d you put her out there?’ and the other five would make you think, ‘why is this kid not starting and playing 40 minutes?

Although somewhat undersized at 6-1, Griffin’s skills as an offensive rebounder and perimeter defender are disruptive to UConn’s opponents more than any other player on the team.

The elder statesman

Redshirt junior Evina Westbrook, playing her first Husky season after two years at Tennessee and a transfer-qualifying off year, is the oldest veteran and the player who holds the team together on the court. Although not particularly vocal, Westbrook rarely makes mistakes, and her even demeanor and solid play anchor a group whose youthful energy could easily become a disorganized frenzy.

Nothing about Westbrook’s game stands out particularly, either on offense or defense. Then one notices that she seems to be in the right place at the right time, nearly all the time. She’s a capable defender, a good passer, and a decent three-point threat.

But it is clear that it is her steady leadership, more than her significant skills on both sides of the ball, that is the key to UConn’s success. Bueckers may be the face of this team, for good reason, but Westbrook is its soul.

Christyn Williams prepares to pass the ball. AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson.

The mystifying veterans

If anything is a disappointment for the Huskies this season, it is that the two veteran starters do not seem to have seized leadership of the team. Juniors Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams, were expected, along with Westbrook, to provide a solid foundation on which the many freshmen could build.

Nelson-Ododa averages 12.7 points and 7.3 rebounds a game. Williams scores 15.3 points, and has become a much better defender. Those numbers would be welcome on most teams.

But each in her own way has failed to live up to the promise of her sophomore year. Against South Carolina, Nelson-Ododa was held to six points on 3-10 shooting, though she did grab seven rebounds and had six assists. Williams shot 3-11 for six points, and turned the ball over four times.

Part of the difficulty for UConn in being back in the Big East this season is that there really are no major challengers in the paint to the Nelson-Ododa. So, naturally, she feasts on those shorter lineups. When faced with strong interior players, however, she has not been the rock that great teams need in the paint. Against an aggressive Arkansas team, she tallied just two points and two rebounds.

Although Nelson-Ododa’s offensive moves around the basket are quite skilled – and a major improvement over her previous two seasons – it appears that she really does not like to bang around in the paint. Lately she has been settling for 15 foot, or even worse, 20-6 jumpers far too often. (The 3-point line is 20 feet, 9 inches).

It is safe to say that most defenses are thrilled to see her hanging out away from the basket. She can make the 15-footer with some regularity, and there are certainly times when the paint is so crowded that she should do so. But she has hit just three of her 13 three-point attempts all year, and she obviously cannot rebound from outside the arc. At her height, playing in this mid-major league, it would be reasonable to expect double-digit rebounds nightly. She has only five such games in 17 starts.

Williams also disappeared against the Gamecocks. Selected as the preseason conference Player of the Year, she has been a study in inconsistency, with no chance of grabbing that title post-season.

While she averages a team-second 15.3 points per game, she has been held scoreless twice, and managed just six points against South Carolina. Williams burst onto the scene as a freshman, scoring 28 against a Notre Dame team that missed a championship repeat by a single point the previous spring. She did that by aggressively driving the baseline, and diving into the paint to score.

Williams has not had a game that impressive since, and the abandon with which she played then is nowhere to be seen now. Rather than using her great first step to get to the hoop or draw fouls, she hangs around the three-point line, where her success has eroded each season.

She has taken 83 threes this season, the most on the team, but has made just 23 of those (.277). Nearly 40 percent of her shots are from beyond the arc, despite this lack of success. She needs to stop shooting from the outside, and force defenses to deal with her considerable skills off the bounce.

Aside from offensive anemia, Williams is a much-improved defender this year. Her assists are also up slightly, and her turnovers are down. Auriemma considers her so essential to the game that she plays 33 minutes per contest, second only to Bueckers.

Given her skillset, however, her performance is puzzling. Rather than leading on the court, she seems content to wait for others to create opportunities for her.

South Carolina notes

It was the ball?!

In 25 years of covering women’s collegiate basketball, I thought I had heard most everything from the losing coach. But after losing on the road by just four, in a game where her defense held the high-scoring Huskies to 63 points, Gamecock coach Dawn Staley had no praise for either team. Instead, she blamed the ball, and primed her players to say the same thing. Really?

Staley’s churlish refusal to give credit to UConn’s defense by blaming the ball for the loss came across as whiny and absurd, not to mention embarrassing. This is unfortunate coming from a coach who has crafted a winning program from an SEC also-ran, and is also the national team coach for the upcoming Olympics.