UConn locks in to dispatch Indiana in women’s Sweet 16

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – The cheering started early. So early, in fact, that the previous NC State-Notre Dame game at Total Mortgage Arena still had more than three minutes left in the third quarter when an overwhelmingly pro-UConn crowd first laid eyes on the Huskies and let out a roaring ovation. At that point, the UConn players, still dressed in their black tracksuits, emerged from an arena tunnel and found seats behind one of the end lines. For a few minutes they sat and watched as mere spectators of a hotly contested affair.

Less than an hour later, after donning their white uniforms, those same players took to the stage for a Sweet 16 contest less than 80 miles from the Gampel Pavilion. You can guess what kind of reception No. 2 UConn received when his contest with No. 3 Indiana finally rocked.

With the Huskies only taking a four-point lead into the locker room at halftime, UConn blitzed IU to open the second half, much to the delight of the vast majority of those in attendance. Propelled by their 16-0 run coming out of the break, UConn won 75-58 and advanced to their 16th consecutive Elite Eight.

Entering the Sweet 16, coach Geno Auriemma insisted on the vulnerability of his team. He admitted he was ‘thrilled to keep playing when you realize how easily it could have gone the other way’, referring to his side’s ‘ugly’ 52-47 win over UCF on Monday last. And he said while “normally” UConn comes into this stage of the tournament with an air of invincibility “we certainly don’t think that now.”

Of his opponent Saturday, Auriemma said he wouldn’t have been shocked if Indiana had won this year’s tournament. (Of course, IU winning the 2022 title would have meant eliminating the Huskies, but nonetheless.)

Was he casting a bad spell? Or motivate his group? Maybe both. Whatever the reason, UConn certainly didn’t look like a team on the ropes against the Hoosiers.

Since Feb. 13, the Huskies hadn’t allowed 50 or more runs in a game. While that streak ended against IU, UConn’s defense was disruptive, especially in the second half, and their coach was particularly pleased with the effort.

“I think we did an amazing job defensively,” Auriemma said. “I thought that was the difference in the game. That we were able to get the saves we needed and not let them play to their advantage.

Sophomore guard Paige Bueckers scored eight of her 15 points in the first 3:45 of the second half, with her 17 shot attempts, the most she has amassed since joining suffered a knee injury against Notre Dame on December 5. Senior guard Christyn Williams had 15 points, freshman Azzi Fudd had 13 and senior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa added 10 as well, completing a balanced offense.

Indiana scheduled for Saturday’s de facto road game. Coach Teri Moren had said graduate goaltender Nicole Cardaño-Hillary would be the team’s caller in situations where the eight-year-old team coach would be drowned out by crowd noise. But in much less expected developments, Cardaño-Hillary recorded four turnovers, his most since mid-February. Senior guard Grace Berger and graduate guard Ali Patberg combined for seven more freebies as the trio of veteran Hoosiers struggled to consistently break down the Huskies.

Equally important, according to Moren, was the gap on the boards, where UConn amassed a 39–27 overall advantage and a 15–2 mark on offensive glass. That last difference led the Huskies to take another 19 shots.

“Their size, their ability to get to the ball faster than we really did, I thought that was what drew us in,” Moren said.

With a minute left in regulation and UConn on the brink of another victory, an arena of Huskies fans rose in celebration of what they had just witnessed. After the final buzzer, as UConn gathered at half court, the Huskies players returned the favor and saluted those in attendance who had cheered them on.

On Monday night, UConn will look to qualify for its 14th straight Final Four when it takes on No. 1 NC State. However, the Huskies won’t have to sit and watch the Wolfpack this time around. And even after a convincing victory, they know not to take the game lightly at this stage.

Says Nelson-Ododa: “We certainly don’t take that for granted.”

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