UConn dominates Villanova to win 27th Big East Tournament title

Brianna Herlihy and Aaliyah Edwards fight for a rebound. Ben Solomon photo.

With a fully-healthy roster for the first time in over three months, UConn smothered Villanova in the Big East Tournament Championship game Monday, 70-40.

Evina Westbrook lead a balanced Husky attack with 13 points, while Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards added 12 and 11, respectively.

That balance was obvious all night, when different players stepped in at different times. Christyn Williams scored five points in the first quarter. Caroline Ducharme had six in the second. Edwards scored seven in the third. Westbrook had nine, and Nelson-Ododa had five in the fourth.

The Huskies grabbed 11 offensive boards and turned them into 11 points. They worked the high-low with their posts, Dorka Juhasz, Nelson-Ododa, and Edwards, dominating paint points 38-16. The bigs combined for six of the team’s 15 assists.

The team’s performance in the final mirrored their cruise through their tournament’s first two games, which they won by a combined 66 points. For the tournament, they outscored their opponents 225-120.

Wounded and vulnerable all season, UConn is now healthy. In fact, as their coach noted after Sunday’s semi-win over Marquette, UConn looks like, well, UConn.

“I told them, this last month, there was a point in time that we started to look like the UConn teams of old,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “And it’s taken a long time to get there. We’ve never taken it for granted. But I know it when I see it, and I know a lot of people watching were, like, ‘This is what I’m used to seeing UConn do.’ That hasn’t necessarily been there in the last four or five years. So I’m excited about that.”

The Huskies’ dominance was a credit to the team they have become. But the lopsided score should not be take anything away from Villanova’s effort. UConn was not the only effective defense on the floor, as the Wildcats forced 11 first half Husky turnovers, scoring six points off them. They maintained their intensity for 40 minutes, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter, just two less than their combined second and third period production.

Williams, who made her fourth conference all-tournament team playing for four consecutive tournament titles at UConn, said this win was the most fulfilling.

“This is my favorite,” she said, “because this team has gone through so much over the course of this season, on and off the court. And we had to work so hard to get to where we are right now.”

“So this one just feels really good. And I’m just super proud to call these girls my teammates and my sisters, and I’m just super proud of my team.”

The Huskies were fully healthy for the first time all year just five games ago. During a season of injuries and COVID-related absences, those who could play, played substantial minutes. Now that they are healthy, nine players split the time that five or six had earlier. But this team has embraced the change, including the reduced playing time.

“I think it’s pretty special,” Westbrook said. “And honestly, it’s kind of fun to play like that. When you have whatever five are out there, and then subs are coming in, and for the other team, they can’t relax on who we’ve got coming in, because everyone is really dangerous.”

“So it feels good and it’s different. But I think it just really prepares you for the next level as well, having to adjust. And you’re not going to be the star player on every team you play on. To be able to adjust and sacrifice things for your team, especially this team, is kind of easy because we all love each other. It’s kind of easy in that aspect.

UConn has now won 27 conference championships, which Auriemma said never gets old.

“Every championship brings a new trophy to a kid who has never had one,” he said. “I think sometimes people think that it gets run of the mill, whatever number you used, like 27 or whatever.”

“I always come back to this. It’s not 27 for Azzi. It’s not 27 for Caroline. It’s not 27 for Aaliyah and all the other young players. And to be able to do it without having to rely on Paige [Bueckers], I think that was really impactful for them, how they felt, because there was this perception early on at one point that without Paige we’re not very good.”

The Huskies and Wildcats last met in the Big East final in 2003, when UConn was riding a 70-game winning streak. Villanova won that game, 52-48 – the last time they won the title game, and the last time the Huskies did not win one while in the league.

That UConn squad went on to win the National Championship, which was All-American Diana Taurasi’s second of three in a row.

This year’s title game saw star guard Paige Bueckers play her fifth game since returning from a knee injury that sidelined her for three months, and it was also the first game in which everyone on the injury-plagued roster was available to play.

Villanova is widely-considered a team on the back end of the NCAA bubble. Winning this game was their only guaranteed way in.

In the only prior meeting of the teams this season, the Wildcats handed UConn their first conference loss in years, breaking a streak of 139 straight wins. Bueckers, Nelson-Ododa and Ducharme were unable to play in that contest.

The Huskies were having none of that on the evening. With smothering defense and efficient offense, they put on a dominating performance, squashing an excellent Villanova squad.

Their pressure defense held the Wildcats to 32 percent shooting for the game – nearly 10 percentage points below their conference game average. Practically every shot they did make was tightly-contested. They had so few open looks that they rushed the shots they could get off. The Huskies forced 18 Villanova turnovers, and scored 22 points off them.

The defense held Maddy Siegrist, the Big East Player of the year and leading scorer, to 16 points on 7-17 shooting – 10 below her average. Edwards most often got the assignment, and most of the time guarded her one-on-one. For her efforts, she was selected to the all-tournament team.

UConn out-rebounded their opponents, 39-17.

“I think they were just a lot more prepared for our offense [than in February’s loss],” forward Brianna Herlihy said. “I feel like the first time we kind of caught them off guard with that.”

“We were able to get more of our cuts, able get into our offense a little easier because they were a little hesitant, they didn’t know what we were going to do. But I feel this time they were a lot more prepared for it, and they threw us off our rhythm from the beginning.”

Siegrist was the only Wildcat to score in double figures, and of the remainder of the team, only Herlihy (eight) had more than five points.

The Huskies shot 56 percent, and all nine players scored. Six (Westbrook, Edwards, Nelson-Ododa, Williams, Ducharme and Azzi Fudd) had nine or more points.

Villanova coach Denise Dillon had, in a way, predicted the offense that their opponents delivered on this night.

“There are many UConn players that need to be slowed down and stopped,” Denise Dillon said Sunday night. “With UConn, you’ve got to honor each and every one of the players that’s on the floor.”

The Huskies are really good. And, as their coach noted, they got here without Bueckers, last year’s national player of the year. Even in the tournament, she played sparingly: 45 minutes, 20 points (8-17), and 7 assists for the entire run. That’s a pretty good stat line for any other player, but not the Bueckers of last season. Most important, she accomplished most of that production in the first two games. She was on the floor for just nine minutes of the final.

She now has 10 days of rest and work to add another superior skillset to an already outstanding team. Asked about her status going forward, Auriemma stressed the mental adjustment a great player has to make after an injury.

“The actual physical part is real,” he said. “Playing two games in two days, and you knew that she was not going to be feeling 100 percent. Because when she is, she’s back to her old self, in practice. So the physical part is real.”

“The other part, the frustration part, and not being able to do it when she wants, on demand, whenever she feels like it? That’s a separate issue. And at some point, you have to adjust.

Auriemma said this is new territory for the highly-driven young athlete.

“You either don’t play at all, or you understand that you at 85 percent can still be better than 90 percent of kids playing college basketball. And don’t let your frustration get in the way of that,” he said. “But she’s a kid, and she’s never faced this kind of adversity before. So you know, it’s a learning process for her just like it would be for anybody else.”

“So that’s going to be job number one the next 10, 11 days.”

The odds are nearly certain that a player with Bueckers’ competitive makeup with make the mental adjustment to be “better than 90 percent” of players in the NCAA tournament.

Whether the Huskies are a two or a three seed; whether they play in Bridgeport or in Wichita (Greensboro would be grossly unfair to UConn and to South Carolina); they will be a team that nobody wants in their bracket. They suddenly look like a team that could reach their 14th straight Final Four.