Bridgeport, CT — There is a saying among the women’s basketball program at Connecticut. To quote Gabby Williams, “To play against us is a marathon, not a sprint.” And even if UCLA did run out to a quick 9-2 lead against a team that had won 109 straight coming into today’s contest, 26 miles later, the Huskies were the last one standing.
Connecticut outlasted UCLA to reach their 12th straight Elite Eight appearance, using a stretch spanning the first and second quarters where they outscored the Bruins 35-9 to secure the win.
In the victory, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma tied the legendary Pat Summitt for most NCAA Tournament wins with 112.
The Bruins came out strong in the opening minutes, using a few different strategies to throw Connecticut off their game: they fronted the UConn forwards in the post to keep them from breaking down the zone, employed a three-quarter court press to slow down UConn’s transition, and played high-pressure defense in the half-court to keep the UConn ball handlers uncomfortable.
In fact, the tactics were so useful that it forced UConn to change up their gameplan. Coach Auriemma turned to seldom-used guard Soniya Chong to maintain poise in the face of the constant pressure. And that might have been the key.
Teammate Gabby Williams even gave her credit for the team’s ability to stay composed, saying, “At times, it seemed like Soniya was the only person we could trust with the ball. She handled their full-court pressure the best.”
After Chong took over the ball-handling duties, the game shifted. Even UCLA coach Cori Close had to admit the change. UConn got more comfortable breaking the press, the baskets came a little easier for the Huskies, and the momentum shifted.
“I have to reference that eight-minute stretch in the first half where we lost our focus and discipline,” Close said of the Connecticut run that stretched out the lead.
That lost focus and discipline came specifically in the form of offensive rebound after offensive rebound. UCLA was actually playing great defense and forcing Connecticut into tough shots. But they lost the battle on the glass handily during the first half; at one point UConn had more offensive rebounds than the Bruin had total rebounds.
And as many teams know, Geno Auriemma’s team is too good to give multiple chances at scoring.
“They’re too efficient to let them have more shots than you,” Close said. “You have to control the possession battle.” And UCLA simply did not.
That being said, despite building the big lead, UConn wasn’t able to extend it the way they usually do. The Bruins fought back in the second half, and despite the lead never even getting back to double digits, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the body language of either the coach or players on the UConn bench.
“It was a grind for our guys, and we felt it in the fourth quarter,” said Auriemma. “I don’t think we really took advantage of a lot of the things we had an opportunity to.”
The result was lots of missed layups, open threes, and free throws. Basically, a lot of the shots that UConn usually takes for granted in order to secure a win.
Gabby Williams agreed with her head coach, saying “We didn’t end the game the way we wanted to at all.”
That type of attitude doesn’t bode well for an Oregon team that just came off a big upset, defeating Maryland to reach their first Elite Eight. Though UConn had a lot of praise for that team, their youth and inexperience might come into play against a UConn team that seemed disappointed with a 15-point win.
If their attitudes after the game offer any hint, UConn will serve as a tougher opponent than usual for Oregon on Monday.