The juniors shined in the Sweet 16, as Connecticut defeated Iowa, 92-72 in a game comically over-hyped as a battle of the team’s two star freshmen, Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark.
Christyn Williams played the best game of her career for the Huskies, scoring 27 points on 12-23 shooting from all over the court: baseline drives, threes, mid-range jumpers, and several acrobatic drives into the teeth of the Hawkeye defense. Coach Geno Auriemma called Williams “amazing.”
“She just had this look in her eye the first half…..it looked like she could score from anywhere, any time she wanted,” he said. “She takes great pride in her defense now and her rebounding, her ability to make a play for someone else, to see things. Just a whole litany of things that I’ve been hoping that Christyn would eventually acquire. She certainly found the perfect time to do that.”
Williams also drew the primary defensive assignment against national scoring leader Clark. Williams has been assigned to guard the best opposing backcourt player over the last month, and has grown into a defensive stopper. Clark was held to seven points on 2-11 shooting in the first half, and to two points on 1-5 shooting in the fourth. She is a brilliant player, and scored 12 in the third period on 5-10 shots ending with 21 total. But rarely has a defense been more effective than the Huskies against the phenomenal freshman.
“I have embraced my role on this team as a defensive stopper,” Williams said. “That hasn’t always been the case my years here at UConn. Coach has always been on me about being a more complete player on both ends of the floor. I’ve just been working hard on it.”
As both Bueckers and Clark have said many times, they are surrounded by good players.
Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock kept Iowa in the game, combining to shoot 5-7 from beyond the arc in the first half, as Iowa managed to find the open player out of double teams. These two ended with a combined 32 points and hit seven of nine three point attempts. Center Monica Czinano added 14 points on 7-11 shooting.
Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook showed a national audience why she is the unheralded glue of this Husky team. She was, as usual, in the right place at the right time, rotating effectively on defense, and toying with a triple-double with 17 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. She scored her 1000th career point during the contest.
“E is a great player and a great teammate,” Williams said. “She does the dirty work. She goes to the offensive boards, she gets steals. A defensive stopper as well. It’s not all about points with E. She’s a great leader off the floor. She’s the mom of our team. We love E to death. I’m so proud of her for getting her 1,000th point.”
UConn also got another solid game from freshman post Aaliyah Edwards. Moved into a starting role replacing injured guard Nika Muhl, Edwards continued an amazing tournament, in which she has averaged 18 points, on 22-18 field goals (.785). She has grabbed 20 rebounds, ten of them offensive.
“If it wasn’t for Aaliyah Edwards, we wouldn’t be here today,” Auriemma said. “That kid has really added so much to our team. Her strength, her physicality, her toughness, her finishing around the basket.”
“Because you put your best defensive big man on Liv (Olivia Nelson-Ododa), now Aaliyah is going to have her way a lot of times. The way she runs the floor, to have a freshman like that, I can’t even imagine what she’s going to look like in a couple years.”
Speaking of Nelson-Ododa, she had just four points, but played an outstanding overall game. She had 11 boards, six of them offensive, and seven assists to go with a block and a steal. Auriemma said that Edwards “allows Liv to be what Liv likes to be. Liv, catch the ball at the high post, be someone who facilitates our offense.” The 6-5 Nelson-Ododa has developed a great rapport with Edwards in the high-low, and has the quickness, to defend out on the perimeter and then recover to be the rim protector in the paint. Connecticut appears to be peaking for the Elite Eight, and doing so across the board.
“I think what’s cool about playing here is that…..we really play team basketball, like we have no other choice,” Westbrook said. “Whatever five is on the court, we have like five killers on the court who can score, facilitate, pass, rebound like crazy; defend like crazy at any moment.”
The Huskies certainly demonstrated that team basketball against Iowa, with an unprecedented 30 assists on 40 buckets, their overall great team defense, and four players with over 15 points.
But back to the hyped freshmen. In fact, both played well, though both were slightly off on their shooting accuracy.
Bueckers, a pass-first point guard, was content with six points on 3-6 shooting, six rebounds and four assists in the first half. But she still finished with 18 points (7-18), nine rebounds and eight assists, and two turnovers.
Clark did not fare as well: 21 points (7-21), three boards, five assists and five turnovers. But against this defense, and a UConn team hitting on all cylinders, this game should not diminish Clark’s outstanding talent and season.
“There were a couple of times where we guarded her great and she still knocked in a couple threes,” Auriemma said. “The kid still came out of there with 21 points.”
The invisible stars of the contest were the officiating crew of Maj Forsberg, Douglas Knight, Julie Krommenhoek, who called just three fouls in the first half, and just 15 for the entire game.
Now to Baylor in the Elite Eight
UConn advanced to their 15th consecutive Elite Eight game – this time a matchup with No. 2 Baylor, who struggled to defeat Michigan in overtime, 78-75.
Auriemma has always considered this doorstep to the Final Four as the toughest game, and the bracket has given the Huskies the team (other than Stanford, the overall No. 1) that matches up best against them.
“If you watch Baylor play you just can’t be anything but impressed with their size and their physicality and their athletic ability,” Auriemma said.
“They’re long. They’re athletic, they’re physical, you know, they really try to intimidate you, and impose their will on you, defensively. They rebound the ball. They get involved, with their hands with their feet, their arms. They’re very athletic very, very physically intimidating team. I don’t know that anybody would ever call us that.”
Lady Bear forward NaLyssa Smith dominated the third round game, scoring 24 points on a perfect 11-11 from the field (though she did miss one of two free throws). Asked how to defend her, Auriemma smiled.
“As you found out with Caitlin Clark yesterday, a really good player, you’re not going to go out there and go ‘oh, you know all this stuff that she did yesterday? ‘We’re not going to let her do any of that stuff.’ That’s nonsense. You know good players are going to do what they’re going to do,” he said.
“You just got to hope that you make it a little more difficult on them than it normally is. But she’s going to get the same shots she got yesterday. I hope she’s not going to go 11-11. But, you know she’s become a really, really good basketball player. I don’t think there’s a big kid in the country that is as versatile as she is.”
Auriemma also complimented Baylor point guard Didi Richards – a player moved to the point for this first time this year, who has excelled in that role.
“I think the entire Baylor team is exceptional defensively,” he said. “You don’t necessarily crack the lineup or get a lot of playing time at Baylor if you’re not a great defensive player. So, Didi is just a perfect example of that. I mean, you look at the stats sometimes and you’ll say ‘well what contribution did she make, but you have to watch the game. And you have to watch the way she impacts the game, you know, defensively to realize how valuable she is on that team.”
Lady Bear coach Kim Mulkey was concerned about Husky posts Nelson-Ododa and Edwards.
“I think their styles are different, which makes them very difficult to defend,” she said. “Because they bring two different styles of play, but they, they complement each other, just very well.”
“With Olivia is a concern her height, altering shots. Her experience. When you go to Aliyah, you’re looking at a young lady that’s tough in there. She’ll post you up, she’s physical.”
As a former all-American, Mulkey thought Bueckers could pose a problem for the Bears, as she has for so many other teams.
“Being an old point guard myself, the first thing I noticed when I saw her play is, she has unbelievable court vision. She can deliver passes to her teammates that make it very easy for them to score,” Mulkey said.
“You don’t see much of that in players anymore. So, you know, I hate that we’re playing against her because she may burn us. Somebody has taught her to have the ability to see things before they happen and to make her teammates have easier shots. She certainly can shoot and score the ball but she seems to be a player when I watch her that wants to be a leader out there and make everybody around her better.”
This game, which both coaches implied should have happened in the Final Four and not the Elite Eight, will be outstanding basketball. Although Baylor has beaten UConn the last two times they played, that is ancient history after a year of COVID – and one that saw their regular-season showdown canceled because of it.
Lady Bear post Moon Ursin said her team is excited about the matchup, played for the first time in a bubble setting.
“This is a completely different atmosphere,” she said. “Obviously you know, we keep that in the back of our mind: ‘we’ve been here before, we’ve played this team before. But it’s a different dynamic, different group of girls, and different platforms. So it’ll be a fun game.”
Against Baylor, the teamwork Westbrook is so proud of will have to be even more precise than it was against the Hawkeyes. But her team approaches its greatest test confidently, as is befitting of a program for which the Final Four has become routine.
“It’s March. It’s UConn time. It’s winning time,” Westbrook said. “So that’s, that’s what we came here to do.”