UConn, Villanova advance to Big East title game

Sunday’s Big East Tournament semifinals featured the toughness and skill of the league’s best, with the top two seeds advancing to the final Monday. But their opponents did not make the road and easy one. Both UConn and Villanova jumped out to big first half leads that failed to demoralize the eventual losing teams. Marquette and Seton Hall each fought back with energy and grit.

No. 1 Connecticut 71, No. 5 Marquette 51

Dorka Juhasz reaches for the rebound. Ben Solomon photo.


Marquette saw little of it against DePaul on Saturday, when they shot 64.5 percent. Sunday was different. Playing against UConn – one of the best defenses in the nation – the Golden Eagles began the game with a turnover and four contested misses.

When they scored at 6:20 into the game, they were already down by seven. Marquette shot just 3-19 in the period.

The Huskies’ offense was clicking as its defense was stifling. Five different players contributed 22 first-quarter points. They drove the lane aggressively (Nika Muhl, Christyn Williams). They hit threes (Muhl and Dorka Juhasz). They turned three offensive rebounds into five more points (Aaliyah Edwards, Caroline Ducharme). They hit 10 of 15 shots.

The score after one period was 22-6. Marquette had 25 points at this stage a day earlier.

“That first quarter they came out just, I think, threw every punch we could barely handle,” coach Megan Duffy said.” The defense was tremendous.”

“I thought we had some good offensive looks at that in that first quarter, but we were unable to make them. Yesterday we were making everything. In that first quarter we were definitely very cold, and that led them to getting anything they wanted [offensively]. They had some great back cuts, and after that, we couldn’t quite recover.”

Of course, a team doesn’t make the semifinals without talent and an ability to adjust. As the game went on, the Golden Eagles moved better, screened better, and found open spots from which to score.

After putting up just six points in that opening period, Marquette scored 12 in the second, but ended the half down 39-18.

Seven UConn players shot a combined 50 percent in the first half, led by Williams’ 11 points. They held their opponents to just 22 percent. Offensive juggernaut Lauren Van Kluenen was held scoreless on seven attempts.

The Golden Eagles were a different team coming into the second half, as Van Kleunan took her game outside, and scored seven quick points. Their defense was far more disruptive, holding their opponents scoreless for several minutes.

UConn took a breath, then exploded for a 15-2 over five-plus minutes, capped by consecutive threes from Evina Westbrook. Marquette’s guards began to assert themselves, and finished the third quarter strong, but still behind by five for the period, which ended with the Huskies ahead 59-32.

The Golden Eagles opened the fourth period on a 9-2 run, and had UConn looking a bit confused for much of the quarter. They won the final stanza 19-12, and won the second half by a point. But the final margin was still 20 points, 71-51.

The first quarter massacre was too much to recover from.

The Huskies shot 50 percent for the game, while Marquette went 31 percent overall and 43 percent in the second half.

Grad transfer Karissa McLaughlin played all 40 minutes, tallying 15 points for the Golden Eagles. Jordan King added 12 points on 5-10 shooting.

“ They threw a lot of guard matchups, a lot of post of post matchups,” McLaughlin said. “They scored a  ton in the paint. I think we just constantly had to adjust to what they were throwing at us.”

“I think consistently – well  not consistently, but towards the end –  the last 15 minutes I think we really competed at the level we wanted to.”

For UConn, there was good news and bad news from this contest. Edwards continued her outstanding, aggressive play, grabbing 11 rebounds, four of them offensive. Juhasz added another solid game to her late season surge, with 13 efficient (4-5) points including three triples.

“I know that from the first time [the teams] met,” Juhasz said, “I might have some chances to shoot the ball from outside just because their defense is so focusing on just guarding around the basket.”

“So that’s why I was able to get some shots up today. And I mean, I don’t think it was anything different [than her 2-point showing Feb. 23]. I just probably was in better position on offense to get those shots. And my teammates are trusting me with the ball.”

Westbrook continued her “solid play,” a phrase which has described most of her Husky career. When Marquette threatened to gain momentum after a run, Westbrook dropped consecutive threes to stop the momentum. She finished with 14 points on 5-9 shooting, and four rebounds.

“When a coach changes your role you can go one of two ways,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “You can embrace it and make the most of it, and actually shine in that role. Or you can feel slighted in some way, especially when you’re a senior. I have a lot of respect for ‘E.’ the way she’s handled this.”

What was not so encouraging was the play of the young guns at the guard position. Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd and Ducharme combined to shoot 3-16.

Bueckers is only four games back from injury, and has been solid, but was ineffective in this contest.

Fudd (4-24) and Ducharme (4-14), however, have shot the ball poorly in their first collegiate tournament. Each has been crucial to the success during long periods when UConn was short-handed. And they will be needed if UConn makes a run deep into the next tournament.

Fortunately for the Huskies, however, the current depth allows for performances like these without major consequences.

No. 2 Villanova 64, No. 6 Seton Hall 55

Lior Garzon reacts after scoring. Ben Solomon photo.

Villanova had won handily in the quarterfinals by playing disciplined half-court offense and enough defense to keep St. John’s on their heels throughout. A motivated and pesky Seton Hall disrupted that smooth flow in the second semifinal.

The teams exchanged baskets to start, until the Wildcat’s 12-2 run over the final 3:43 gave them an 11-point lead as the quarter ended 23-12. Maddy Siegrist and Breanna Herlihy each scored seven for Villanova, and Lauren Park-Lane had the same number for the Pirates.

A second period to forget saw just seven field goals and 21 misses by the two teams, each of whom shot just 25 percent. The Wildcats abandoned their motion offense to take quick three-pointers, without success. The halftime score was 30-21.

“They were sagging off, and the three was open,” coach Denise Dillon said. “ But we did talk [at the half] about getting that shot later in the clock, just continuing to move the ball and execute.”

“I think we did a better job in the second half of doing just that. But it was really just the allure of ‘I’m open, I’m going to take the shot,’ and things weren’t going our way so much in the second quarter.”

Villanova began the second half with a flurry of threes taken within their offense, and led by 16 just three minutes in. It was their largest lead of the night, and Seton Hall realized a change of plan was needed.

The Pirates defense notched it up, and began to press and trap on every sequence. The effect was immediate: a shot clock violation on the next Wildcat possession, and a rare 10-second call on the next.

Villanova committed five turnovers in the first half. After Seton Hall ramped up the press, they committed 13 more in the next 15 minutes.

For a short time, the Wildcat’s calm seemed to crack. Trying to break the press, they repeatedly found the ball stuck in a trap in the dead corner between halfcourt and the sideline.

A Pirates team that had engineered a comeback upset over Creighton on Saturday was poised to do it again. Park-Lane and Andra Espinoza-Hunter combined for a 9-0 run in just two minutes to cut the lead to four, with six minutes remaining.

After an exchange of free throws, baskets and turnovers, Villanova hung on to that same four-point advantage with two minutes remaining, and seemed to have regained their calm.

“Watching them play, they go on runs, they’re very talented offensively,” Siegrist said. “And we knew they could score very quickly. So we just knew that, ‘all right, that was their run,’ and we kept calm the whole time. And I think that really helped us, especially with a few of the turnovers we were able to come back from.”

Lior Garzon decided that four points was not enough. She drove for a layup, then hit a soul-crushing three with exactly one minute remaining to push the lead to nine points. After a missed three, Seton Hall had to foul.

Villanova, a .769 free throw team on the season, made things interesting by missing four of eight in the last 45 seconds, but maintained their poise to secure a 64-55 victory.

Park Lane and Siegrist had 24 points for their respective teams. Siegrist, the Big East Player of the Year, added 14 rebounds and four steals. Espinoza-Hunter scored 11 of her twelve points in the second half. Garzon shot just 4-11 for 13 points, but her five in the last three minutes may have been the most important of her career.

Villanova and UConn meet in the tournament final Monday at 8 p.m. ET. Each has a loss to contemplate as they prepare to meet. The Wildcats ended the Huskies’ 169-game conference winning streak with a two-point victory on Feb. 9 – their only meeting this season. But UConn embarrassed Villanova in last year’s tournament semifinals, 84-39.

Today’s gender equity question: Why is the women’s tournament before the men’s?

While the Big East women play their tournament this weekend, the Big East men are finishing their regular season. Their tournament begins on Wednesday.

It has been in this order – women, then men – for more than 25 years. Why?

The earlier tournament compresses the women’s schedule. This year, with postponements, most teams played three games a week during February, while the men, with the same number of conference games, had March to play at least three of them.

The difference in the wear and tear of those schedules is considerable.

There is no reason for the women’s tournament to be earlier, or for the men’s to be later. The men’s NCAA championship actually begins a day sooner than the women’s.

So let’s fix this, and alternate who gets which week to play their tournaments.