The No. 6 UConn Huskies have encountered uncharacteristic adversity this season.
Five losses are the most they have suffered in a decade. With three losses before Christmas, including two to unranked teams, they dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since the 2004-05 season. In early February, they lost to a Big East foe — the Villanova Wildcats — for the first time in 169 games, a streak that began in 2013.
Paige Bueckers, who was assumed to be the center of everything the Huskies would do after she swept national Player of the Year honors as a freshman, fell to an early season knee fracture that required surgery and resulted in her missing eight weeks of action. Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2021, also was bitten by the injury bug, sidelined with a stress reaction in her foot.
Well, Bueckers is easing her way back, and it appears UConn also is re-emerging as a more familiar version themselves.
Appropriately, the Huskies confirmed their rejuvenated status with a victory over the same Villanova team that defeated them approximately one month ago. After cruising through the Big East Tournament with a pair of dominating wins, No. 1 seed UConn crushed No. 2 seed Villanova in the championship final 70-40 on Monday night at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
It is the 20th Big East Tournament title for head coach Geno Auriemma and the Huskies.
As they did throughout the tournament, the Huskies (25-5, 16-1 Big East) showed off the depth they cultivated during this season’s absences and struggles. Evina Westbrook led the team with 13 points off the bench, while starting bigs Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa scored 12 and 11 points, respectively. Christyn Williams, Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme all added nine points.
However, it has been defense, more than offense, that has helped the Huskies rediscover their dominating ways.
After the game, Edwards noted, “We are pretty efficient on defense and that’s what we hold ourselves to. Being able to switch one through five is very impactful and shows how aggressive we can be on defense, which leads to being aggressive on offense as well.”
Of the nine players in Auriemma’s rotation, Bueckers played the fewest minutes, logging 8:15 and scoring two points. On his most talented player, Auriemma shared:
She’s got a lot of work to do. She has her good days, her bad days. She has her good days mentally, her bad days mentally. My big thing is, yeah, get her physically feeling better. She has to get her mind right now. She hasn’t been in that mode for three moths or whatever it is now. That will be job number one (the) next 10 or 11 days.
If Bueckers can return closer to top form, a deep tournament run seems more than possible for the Huskies.
According to the prognostications of ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme, the Huskies should secure a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, buoyed by their conference tournament title and a 10-game winning streak.
Villanova (23-8, 15-4 Big East) was led by Big East Player of the Year Maddy Siegrist’s 16 points. No other Wildcat scored in double figures, preventing the Wildcats from putting together the kind of offense performance needed to again knock off UConn. In Creme’s estimation, the Wildcats have not quite done enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, as he forecasts them to be the last team out of the tourney field.