Big East quarterfinals showcase upsets

The Big East Tournament is full of surprises, as two of Saturday’s quarterfinal games were upsets, setting up an intriguing day of semifinals.

No. 5 Marquette 105, No. 4 DePaul 85

Liza Karlen prepares to launch one of her shots for a team-high 16 points on the day. Ben Solomon photo.

You like scoring? The Big East Tournament delivers.

Remember the 48 points scored by Seton Hall and Butler together in the first half on Friday?

Marquette and DePaul combined to score 47 points in the first quarter of the second game on Saturday. By the end, they combined for 190.

But those gaudy point totals do not really describe the game.

“The score of the game was a hundred and something,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. “A good smacking by Marquette.”

“But the score was really 49 to 17. And that was the rebounding numbers. And when the team could beat you off the backboard 49 to 17, that’s just a tribute to the toughness and competitiveness, combativeness and the grit of the Marquette basketball team.”

The Golden Eagles so dominated the boards that they held Blue Demon super-frosh Aneesah Morrow to just five boards, breaking her string of 22 consecutive double-doubles for the young phenomenon. They did it by throwing bodies at her.

“I would just say Marquette’s determination to get me off the boards was the big thing,” Morrow said. “Sometimes they were sending three or four people to box me out or just go for the ball. So that was a big thing for them.”

DePaul missed 40 shots (and made 36), but they grabbed just four offensive boards, scoring just three points off them. The Golden Eagles grabbed 11 offensive boards and turned them into 17 points.

The offense may not have been the key to the game, but it was fun to watch.

In the first five minutes of this offensive showcase, Marquette and DePaul shot 14-22 (.633) and the favorite Blue Demons led 16-15. After 10 minutes, the tally was 21-38 (.552), and six players on each team had scored.

Neither team let up. The Golden Eagles spread their scoring, relying on mid-range jumpers and nifty inside moves to take a 54-43 lead into the locker room. They shot 64.9 percent, led by sophomore forward Liza Karlen’s 16 points on 7-7 shooting and grad Karissa McLaughlin’s four threes.

DePaul relied more heavily on Morrow, a leading Freshman of the Year candidate. She shot 8-12, 2-4 on threes, for 19 points, and grabbed four rebounds in the half.

Was anyone playing any defense, or was this just a focused shooting day all around? A little of both. Certainly, there were many unguarded jumpers, but Morrow’s all-around excellence and Lauren Van Kleunan’s work around the hoop stood out.

Halftime lit a fire under the Blue Demons and cooled off Marquette a bit. A 7-2 DePaul run that included two missed bunnies by Marquette caused Golden Eagles Coach Megan Duffy to call a timeout two and a half minutes in, the lead down to 56-50.

The timeout settled Marquette, and they began to play every sequence through the post. Van Kleunan responded with eight points and an assist, while forward Chloe Marotta had three assists. Despite committing eight turnovers, the Golden Eagles played the Blue Demons even for the third period, re-establishing their 11-point advantage, 73-62.

As Marquette continued to match or exceed DePaul’s offense, Bruno switched to a trapping press. It was not successful. Their opponents more often than not shredded it, scoring a series of layups, opening a 21-point lead, 95-47.

Even from there, the Golden Eagles eschewed a slow-down game, and continued to play with intensity. The final was 105-85. Marquette shot a Big East Tournament record 64.5 percent for the game, and over 60 percent in every quarter.

“We’re really not built too often to score 105 points,” Duffy said. “It was just really phenomenal to be a part of the way the ball was moving, the way we saw mismatches.”

“And when you play a team like DePaul, they’re gonna pressure you, but they’re also going to give you opportunity to make those shots and go downhill and get easy shots. I thought we took advantage of that.”

Karlen finished with 26 points on 12-15 shooting, and 12 rebounds. Van Kleunen scored 20, and had five assists.

Morrow’s 29 points and five steals led DePaul, and Sonya Morris added 17 points.

Marquette will play UConn at 3 p.m. ET Sunday.

No. 6 Seton Hall 66, No. 3 Creighton 65

Mya Bembry hits the game-winning shot for Seton Hall. Ben Solomon photo.

The late, late show quarterfinal was the most balanced, competitive, and exciting of the day. Creighton, needing a win to have a chance for a bid to the NCAA tournament, started slowly, with just five field goals in the first period.

Seton Hall’s slightly better shooting gave them a three-point advantage after a quarter, and a six-point lead, 33-27, at the half. In a measure of the even match to come, 11 players on the two teams contributed to the halftime score.

The Bluejay’s half-court offense started clicking in the third quarter, as they began to hit threes, won the battle of the boards and erased the deficit. The Pirates did not wilt, however. There were five lead changes and one tie in the period. Creighton finished with a two point lead, 48-46.

The fourth quarter was more of the evenly-balanced same. An intentional foul on Andra Espinoza-Hunter gave the Bluejays their largest lead 55-49, but Lauren Park-Lane answered with an and-one, and several possessions later Espinoza-Hunter’s three closed the gap to two, 57-55 with 4:25 remaining.

Although Creighton had taken the lead from the paint, they shot and missed four quick threes, while Espinoza-Hunter made another for the Pirates to take the lead, 58-57.

With time running down, the teams traded makes, misses and fouls. The Bluejays took the lead with a free throw and layup, and Park-Lane answered with a three to tie it again with a minute left. After a steal and layup gave Seton Hall a two-point lead, Tatum Rembao’s three gave their opponents a one-point advantage with 26 seconds remaining.

Park-Lane held for the last shot, then penetrated to the baseline and under the hoop, flipping the ball to Mya Bembry. Her 12-footer gave the Pirates a 66-65 lead with two seconds left.

Creighton had read the play right. Everyone in the building knew that Park-Lane would control the play.

“We debated [the winning play] for a while, Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella said. “I’m one of those people who likes to shoot early so we can extend the game.”

“But just the way this game was going, and having no timeouts left, I said ‘let’s just hold for the last shot.’ At 12 [seconds] really we’re trying to get the ball back in Lauren’s hands. Her first look was to score the ball herself. Her second look was to dunk to Sydney. And a third look was to you know, create. And Lauren’s come a long way in being able to trust her teammates, which is why she’s an elite point guard. And she trusted Mya. Mya was open, stepped in, and shot the ball. So they executed the play, you know, obviously as well as we could have hoped.”

Creighton coach Jim Flannery said his team faltered on a defensive switch.

“We had (Park-Lane), she’s dead on the baseline. And we just over-helped,” he said. “But it’s still a great shot by Bembry. So she played really well. So she was a she was probably the X-factor, right?”

The Bluejays, with just two seconds remaining, advanced the ball with a time out. Rembao got off a shot, but her 12-footer rimmed out, and with it, likely her team’s invite to the NCAA tournament.

Sidney Cooks had 20 points and eight boards for the Pirates. Bembry had 12 points, including the game-winner and ten boards to lead all players.

Emma Ronsiek scored 13 for Creighton, Rembao 12.

Seton Hall advances to play Villanova at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

No. 1 UConn 84, No. 9 Georgetown 38

UConn’s defense dominated Georgetown in Saturday’s first quarterfinal. In the first half, they held the Hoyas to three total field goals and nine points. They forced 17 turnovers in the half, from which they scored 17 points.

The halftime score was Huskies 43, Georgetown 9.

“They are very aggressive team,” Georgetown coach James Howard said. “One that takes away passing lanes, that jumps everything that you’re trying to do. They’re not going to allow you to get into rhythm.”

Offensively, UConn allowed the Hoyas to force them into taking threes, but they made 9-20 in that first half. After missing their first two shots, the Huskies embarked on a 40-3 run over the next 17 plus minutes, ending the half ahead 43-9. Christyn Williams scored 13 of the UConn’s 22 first-quarter points, including 3-3 from beyond the arc. The game never got close from there.

“We thrive on defense and it helps us keep going offensively,” Williams said. “If we start off aggressive on the defensive end, it gets us going. And I just think we need to play all of our games like that and with that mindset.”

Asked if defense was the key to the team’s post-season hopes, coach Geno Auriemma said, simply, “It always is. It always is. It’s always been that way.”

“And some years it’s better than others. Some years you have a team that’s better equipped to play better defense,” he said. ‘Some years you got to really cobble together a good defensive team from guys are not great individual defenders. But this team works pretty well together. At least they’ve learned how to work pretty well together. Because I don’t know that individually maybe other than Nika (Muhl), [we have a great individual defender.]”

Georgetown regrouped some at halftime and managed 16 points in the third quarter, as Megan Clougherty scored all of her team-leading 10 points.

Paige Bueckers played 18 minutes in her third game back from injury, scoring a team-high 16 points on 6-9 shooting, 4-5 from three. She also had five rebounds and four assists.

Her coach, never satisfied with anything short of perfection, said she played well, but still was feeling her way, which is hardly surprising after three games.

“I just want her to be in her comfort zone as she’s playing,” Auriemma said. “To feel like ‘I can make any three I take. I can dribble the ball from this spot to that spot and get my shot and nobody can keep me from doing it. I can get to the basket whenever I want.’ I just want her to feel that. And then whether or not she actually does that every time she can, that’s a choice that she makes. I just need to know that she can.”

Aaliyah Edwards, still resurgent after a difficult sophomore year, had 14 points, seven rebounds, and three assists.

The final score was 84-38 as the Huskies shot 50 percent and the Hoyas, 27.5 percent.

UConn faces Marquette at 3 p.m. ET Sunday.

No. 2 Villanova 76, No. 7 St. John’s 52

Bruno would have recognized the key “score” to the third quarterfinal.

That would be 41-31, the rebounding margin for Villanova over St. John’s. More telling was the 15-9 disparity in offensive rebounds. The Wildcats scored 14 second-chance points.

Grad forward Breanna Herlihy, standing just 6-1, grabbed 17 of those Villanova boards, to go with her 16 points and five assists. Besides her dominance on the glass, Herlihy stepped up with a personal 7-3 run out of a timeout to stop the Red Storm’s biggest challenge to their lead early in the third quarter.

“It wasn’t designed, it was just part of the flow,” Herlihy said. “As I said before, ‘you win or go home.’ So they went on a run and I was like we ‘we’re not going home today.’ So I guess that mindset kind of pushed me to start hitting shots on that little run there.”

With that surge broken, the Wildcats never looked back, steadily pulling ahead for the final victory.

And while we consider numbers (not surprisingly in the victor’s favor), try 17-4. Discipline and methodical versus individual and frenetic. The assist numbers paint a picture of the approach of the two contestants. While Villanova took chunks of time off the clock running a set offense full of cuts and screens, St. John’s used minimal screening action, settling for one-on-one drives into the paint.

“Yeah, well, that’s why you score 52 points,” coach Joe Tartamella said. “They did a good job in denying us in certain ways. We didn’t attack or react the right way.”

“They did a good job of trying to disrupt us at the bottom line, and so that’s why you see four assists. When you don’t react the right way, and you don’t have a mentality to know how to change when teams guard multiple actions, it looks like it’s one-on-one. And that’s what it was. And that’s not how we play. And so certainly, it’s part of the reason why we didn’t have as much of an output here on the offensive end.”

The Wildcats immediately disrupted the Red Storm game plan. They opened the game with threes on their first three possessions, disrupting their opponent’s plan to pack the paint to control the play of Herlihy and Big East Player of the Year Maddy Siegrist.

“With Lucy [Olsen] and Lior [Garzon] hitting those shots right off the bat,” Siegrist said, “then they have to guard them. It makes them a threat offensively, and then that gives us [post players] confidence too.”

The guards remained a threat throughout. Garzon finished with 15 points and Olsen with 13. The balanced attack allowed Villanova to steadily add to their lead. They finished the first half up 14, 44-30.

The score was that close largely due to the energy and aggressive drives of Kadaja Bailey, who had 10 first-half points. She finished with 19, joined by 15 from Leilani Correa. But those two got little help from their teammates, none of whom had more than six.

After Herlihy stopped St. John’s run early in the third quarter, they did not threaten the rest of the way.

Villanova won the second half 32-22, and the game 76-52.

They will play Seton Hall at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

A shout out to the officials

Who are these people? The officiating in this tournament, through six games, has been outstanding.

All season long I have joined other basketball lovers in frustration as officials treated the women who play in the Big East as though they were delicate glass figurines, disrupting the flow of the game by calling tacky touch fouls – many 30 feet from the hoop. Or, calling a foul on any post contact of a shooter, whether or not it disrupted the offensive action.

Well, those same folks showed up for this tournament, but they brought a totally new look. It’s as if someone convinced them that they share the court with athletes: strong, capable, talented women who want to be able to play the game they love without unnecessary interference from the stripes.

It made for enjoyable basketball.

The one exception to these seemingly new standards came in the first half of Villanova-St. John’s, where the non-calls were called, and Tartamella was T’d up for complaining about one. But something happened at the break, and the crew backed off in the second half. In the next game – the last of the evening – officials were restrained and nearly invisible, as the best refs are.