by Jim Clark
After watching two other No. 2 seeds fall in the second round, UConn barely escaped a similar fate Monday night, in round 2 of the NCAA Tournament against seventh-seed UCF.
Neither team had looked forward to this matchup of teams that shared the AAC conference for seven years, and 13 previous games. In a game that both teams described as “ugly” and “physical,” the Huskies held hit the free throws they needed to pull out a close 52-47 win.
The Knight’s active defense rushed UConn into a series of missed layups and forced shots, as they held them to just .292 shooting, and 22 points below their average. At the same time, the Huskies’ defense forced 20 UCF turnovers, which was just enough for them to survive and advance to the Bridgeport regional.
“Yeah, it was a battle the whole game,” UConn guard Christyn Williams said. “We knew coming into this game they would be very physical and very aggressive. We just tried to throw the first punch, and keep punching them.”
“We didn’t have our best game today, but I’m really proud of our team. We grinded it out. It was very ugly, but we got the W and that’s all that matters.”
The Knights actually appeared to throw the first punch, or at least to parry that of the Huskies, logging 46 percent shooting and a 18-12 lead after 10 minutes. UConn missed five layups that period, while UCF got the ball inside, and hit a few threes outside.
“We were expecting to be physical,” Knight guard Diamond Battles said. “But I don’t think they were expecting us to be as physical.”
“The toughness, that’s what we are. That’s who we are. UCF is a tough, gritty team and we’ll always be that way; nothing will change it. From the beginning we knew how we had to play and we played that way for 40 minutes.”
The Huskies regrouped with the entry of Nika Muhl and Dorka Juhasz on the defensive end, holding their opponents to just 2-11 shooting in the second period. A Muhl three-pointer put them ahead for the first time, and gave them a 26-23 halftime lead.
The Knights were not going anywhere, however, and hit their first two shots of the second period to retake the lead. Despite UConn’s slight height advantage, they could get nothing going in the paint. UCF’s ultra-aggressive defense was keeping their opponents from the hoop, but that aggression carried with it too many fouls. The Huskies’ uncharacteristically good free throw shooting ultimately gave them the victory.
The teams exchanged baskets well into the third period. UConn’s hit a few more shots, and went to the line a few more times, feeding a 12-2 run over the last seven minutes of the period to take their largest lead, 38-30 going into the fourth period.
Coach Geno Auriemma’s substitution patterns were a reversion to his short-bench philosophy for the Huskies, going back as long as one can remember. The second quarter turn-around came with the insertion of Muhl and Juhasz. Yet, in a battle of defenses, and with a lead as large as 12 points, Big East Defensive Player of the Year Muhl did not play at all in the second half.
“Obviously she came in the second quarter,” Auriemma said. “I mean the whole second quarter she played almost. And she was instrumental in changing the tempo of the game. But I just felt like we needed offense and nothing against Nika at all. Nothing.”
The fourth quarter, like the third, belonged, just barely, to UConn. Two Azzi Fudd threes, and a mid-range jumper by Paige Bueckers, gave them their largest lead, 48-36, with just under five minutes remaining.
UCF came out a timeout with two open jumpers by Brittney Smith around a three by Battles to cut the lead to five. Auriemma called a timeout with 1:39 remaining. Coming out of that break, his team turned it over on a shot-clock violation.
Battles drove, was fouled, and made both free throws, cutting it to three, capping a 9-0 run in which the Huskies missed all seven of their shots, and lost the ball twice on shot clock violations.
Bueckers missed a three as time ran out again, and Juhasz was blocked after an offensive board. The Knights advanced the ball with 34 seconds remaining, and then Smith was fouled. She then missed the first shot, and lost the second on a lane violation. UConn, leading by three with 22.7 seconds, advanced the ball with its last timeout.
They hadn’t scored in 4:33 when Williams was fouled with 19.6.seconds remaining. She made both free throws to pad her team’s lead to 50-45. Their opponents advanced the ball with their final timeout.
Even at this point, with defense at a premium, Muhl sat on the bench, not having played one minute in the second half.
UConn fouled Smith on the ensuing play, and she hit both free throws to cut the lead back to three with 16 seconds left. UCF had to foul on the inbounds, and Fudd hit both free throws to extend the lead back to five, and seal the game.
A rushed three attempt by Masseny Kaba missed everything, and the Huskies escaped to the Sweet 16, looking anything but invincible.
They missed nine layups, and shot just 29 percent for the day, just 14-48 from the field. They didn’t make a field goal in the last 4:52, as they watched their lead dwindle from 12 to three.
They did, however, hit 6-6 free throws in the final period, four from Fudd, who led all scorers with 16 points (on just 4-13 shooting, all threes). UConn, who have often struggled from the charity stripe, won the game at the free throw line, hitting 18 of 23. Their defense forced 20 turnovers, scoring 15 points off them.
The Knights won the battle of the boards, 35-29, but scored just six second chance points off their 10 offensive rebounds. Just as the Huskies won the game on the free throw line, their opponents lost it there, shooting just 10-20.
Both coaches acknowledged the very physical nature of the game, and neither seemed pleased by the officiating, which fouled out two UConn starters (Edwards and Nelson-Ododa) and one key sub from UCF (Alicia Lewis). Smith was limited to 21 minutes due to foul trouble. The officials seemed to allow any kind of contact between guards, and very little in the paint.
“You know, sometimes we forget that basketball is a game that involves a lot of contact,” Auriemma said. “Football is a collision sport; basketball is a contact sport, right? So there’s going to be a lot of contact.”
“There’s times when you’re just in a rock fight and you just gotta figure out a way to get through it. And there’s other times where it feels like you’re at a ballet and nobody’s touching nobody. And everything is cool. You shoot, I shoot, you shoot, I shoot. West Coast basketball. I think we had some West Coast officials.”
Fudd led all scorers with 16 points on four threes and those crucial free throws. Battles led UCF with 12 points, five from the line.
UConn next plays No. 3 Indiana, which itself barely survived their game against No. 11 Princeton, 56-55.