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UConn, UCF win handily with defensive pressure

Brittney Smith elevates for a shot. UCF Athletics photo.

Defense ruled in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, as both higher seeds won in Storrs.

UConn, the No. 2 seed, easily handled No. 15 Mercer, 83-38 in the first game, holding them to 23.2 percent shooting and shutting them out in the third quarter. In the second game, No. 6 UCF held No. 10 Florida to 30 percent shooting, and won comfortably, 69-52.

No. 2 UConn 83, No. 15 Mercer 38

Dorka Juhasz prepares to pass. UConn Athletics photo.

The Huskies led the first game the whole way, spreading the scoring among 10 players, dominating the boards 53-30, and forcing 21 turnovers.

The Bears were down by 20 at the end of the first half, but it just got worse. Scoring, rebounding, and assist leader Amoria Neal-Tysor went to the floor at the 6:37 mark of the second period, landing hard on her left arm. She never returned, and although Mercer played UConn even from that point to the break, they came out of halftime without a spark. The Huskies doubled their lead with a 20-0 third period. The Bears are just the second tournament team since 2016 to fail to score in an entire quarter (Texas v. South Carolina, 2021).

Dorka Juhasz led UConn in energy, and recorded a 10 point, 10 rebound double-double.

“Dorka’s a competitive kid and I love how hard she plays, coach Geno Auriemma said. “It never surprises me how hard she works defensively, how hard she works rebounding the ball.”

“That’s probably been the biggest contribution that she’s made to our team. The points have been great, yeah, but passing the ball, rebounding the ball, playing defense, I think all those things have been really, really solid for the majority of the year. More so now, though.”

Paige Bueckers started her first game since returning from injury. The sophomore contributed 12 points (5-7 shooting, 2-2 on threes), five assists, four rebounds, and two steals in 25 minutes of play.

Christyn Williams and Caroline Ducharme were the other Huskies in double figures, but they shot a poor 9-24 between them.

Overall, UConn shot 44 percent (five below their average), but an excellent 44 percent from three. They also turned the ball over 16 times, yielding eight points to Mercer.

“It takes a little bit of time in that first game,” Auriemma said. “The first half was kind of choppy and a little bit disjointed in trying to find that rhythm.”

“I thought we came out in the second half and we played exceptionally good defense in that third quarter and that got everything going in the right direction and got us more involved offensively. And it was more like what I expect to see and hopefully we’ll see a lot more of that Monday night because we’ll need a lot more of that for sure.”

Shannon Titus was the only Bear to score in double figures, with 12. She added a team leading five rebounds and five steals.

No. 6 UCF 69, No. 10 Florida 52

Brittney Smith elevates for a shot. UCF Athletics photo.

In the second game, UCF held Florida to 30 percent, forcing 16 turnovers and winning 69-52. The Gators kept the game within reach by outrebounding the Knights 24-16 in the first half, but still entered the locker room down 11.

Florida made it exciting in the third period by driving the ball into the teeth of the UCF defense, and moving the ball better side to side. They closed to within four but could not sustain the momentum. UCF regrouped and opened the lead back to 12 with an 8-0 run in the last three minutes.

The Gators never got closer than nine points again, eventually losing by 17.

Brittney Smith excelled for the Knights, scoring a career high 26 points on 11-17 shooting, and adding 6 rebounds.

“Brittney is scary because she doesn’t know that she’s that good, coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Brittney doesn’t know she’s that athletic. Brittney doesn’t know she has that wingspan.”

“She’s got some low post moves, got some step-outs, he’s got nice touch. She has no idea that she’s that special.”

Masseny Kaba added 14 points, six rebounds and five blocks for UCF, and Diamond Battles scored 18, with seven assists.

Nina Rickards led Florida with 17 points on 7-13 shooting, and Zippy Broughton added 12 points, eight boards and six assists.

It was UCF’s first NCAA tournament victory.

Monday’s matchup not likely to be easy for the host

UConn has not lost in the first or second round of the tournament since 1993. UCF had never won any tournament game before Saturday. The Huskies are 13-0 against the Knights all time, and they are playing at home, where they rarely lose.

That does not mean, however, that this will be a walk-over victory for UConn. UCF played a number of games at Gampel pavilion during the Huskies’ AAC seasons, and they are comfortable playing there.

In the last two meetings of the teams, both in 2020, the Knights lost to UConn by 12 and nine points, remarkably close for the Huskies in the AAC.

Four UCF players were part of those two games: Battles (11 points combined), Smith (14), Masseny Kaba (23), and Destiny Thomas (0).

Williams (8 pts.) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (17 pts.) played for the Huskies.

Of course, neither team is much like those 2020 squads, despite the player overlap.

This is one of the best UConn defenses ever, according to their coach.

“I think it’s pretty unusual, for as many young players as we have, that they want to be that good defensively,” he said. “I think Nika [Muhl] is a big deal in all that. I think when she’s not in the game our defense is not the same, and you saw it today. The minute she enters the game, things change, and then people get caught up and now it’s contagious.”

“But every good team that’s going to be left standing in the NCAA tournament w is probably going to be a really, really good defensive team and if we want us to be that team, then it has to be as good as it was today and even better.”

That includes the Knights, who are second in the nation in field goal percentage defense. (UConn is 14th). UCF has three double-digit scorers and they have height in 6-3 Masseny and Smith. They have also spread the offense around a lot better this season.

“Our defense is really good because it’s consistent,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “You know, we don’t change. We don’t go zone, man, we don’t mix it up. We stay in our press.”

“Offense, I mean, this year really is our best offensive team for sure. Everybody is scoring. Nobody cares who gets credit.”

The Huskies are still the favorites, as they have superior depth. They rebound better than UCF, and they have nine players who can score. Their defense recently has been outstanding, holding teams to an average just under 40 points in the last nine games.

This will just be a battle. It will be one of those games where, if the Knights bring their A+ game and UConn brings its B- game , there could be an upset.

It will certainly be a game worth watching, and a snapshot of where the Huskies are moving forward. Assuming they do that. If they don’t, it will count among the biggest upsets in tournament history.

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