No. 1 Connecticut returns to the Elite Eight for the 15th consecutive year with a 92-72 victory over No. 5 Iowa on Saturday at the Sweet 16.
All eyes on the showdown were on UConn freshman Paige Bueckers, player of the year awards finalist, and Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark, who led the nation in scoring. in the regular season. They both stood out in their own way, Bueckers was close to a triple-double, but it was his teammates who had to step up for their team to advance.
UConn juniors Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook led the way alongside Aaliyah Edwards, a strong freshman spot that is often overlooked alongside Bueckers. She came out hot for UConn in a tight first quarter and set the tone for a team-wide effort.
The Huskies moved the ball, controlled the boards and racked up second-chance points to take a 15-point lead at halftime. Iowa stepped in, hitting the single digits a few different times, but couldn’t shut down all of UConn’s offensive options.
Bueckers leads the Huskies with assists
Bueckers is a point guard who passes first. Those talents are why the great Diana Taurasi of UConn calls her “the greatest basketball player” and they were on display against Iowa.
The freshman had four in the first half when UConn assisted on 17 of 22 field goals. And she went ahead in the second with the slick dishes she has become known for.
When Iowa cut it to the single digits, 74-65, early in the quarter, Bueckers hit a triple and responded that Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall made 3 with another of his own. Iowa couldn’t get close again after that and it was all UConn, with Geno Auriemma back on the sidelines after a COVID-19 quarantine, down the stretch.
Bueckers scored 18 points on shots of 7 of 18 and was 2 of 6 from 3-point range. He was on triple watch in the fourth quarter and finished with nine rebounds and eight assists.
Westbrook, a 6-foot junior transfer from Tennessee, got even closer to his own triple-double. He had 17 points on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, and added 10 assists and nine rebounds with two steals.
Clark is not enough for Iowa
UConn can move the ball with ease, so poor Iowa defense will always be a problem. To advance, the Hawkeyes were going to need the best game of Clark’s career.
The Huskies were able to keep her at bay early, forcing her to stray away from her favorite way of creating a shot with a dribble and a step. Clark was 2-for-11 in the first half and missed five of six 3-point attempts.
But in the second half he flared up to bring Iowa back.
Clark still reached 21 points, although he was much less efficient than he usually plays. She shot 7 of 21 from the field, including 4 of 12 from 3-point range. Junior Monika Czinano, Clark’s favorite post target, had 14 points with three rebounds. McKenna Warnock added 20 and made three of four triples.
Christyn Williams leads the Huskies team effort
UConn controlled almost every facet of the game. The Huskies assisted on 30 of 40 shots from the field and were 54.8 percent from the field. They rebounded the Hawkeyes, 42-25, and had 14 second-chance points in the first half alone.
It was a complete team effort to defeat Iowa and Williams, the oldest member of the team, led the way. He lit up in the second quarter with 14 points and had 18 at the half on 8 of 14 shots. At the end of the game he led with 27 points on 12 of 23 shots and three triples.
But arguably the 5-foot-11 guard’s biggest contribution was smothering Clark at the top. The Iowa freshman star was unable to come out and create space against her and didn’t have such a clear look at her open teammates. The difference was a calm Clark in the second quarter.
Edwards, one of seven UConn freshmen and a huge defensive contributor at 6-foot-3, scored 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting with three rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, 6-foot-5, had only two buckets, but she led the team in the boards with 11 and had seven assists, two steals and a block. Sophomores Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat combined for six points and five rebounds from the bench.
Freshmen settle in after nervous first half
It was a nervous and chaotic first few minutes, as each team settled into the most anticipated game of the weekend.
Edwards broke nearly two minutes inside and controlled the first quarter inside as Westbrook finished shots from beyond the arc. UConn held the 22-18 lead after the first quarter in which Clark (a triple) and Bueckers (two jumpers in the last minute) were kept under control.
The Huskies jumped by 10 points, 36-26, midway through the second quarter in the blink of an eye, which could well be a recorded fad. It stayed around a 10-point deficit for the remainder of the contest, although Iowa edged closer to seven by the middle of the third.
The Huskies entered halftime up, 49-35, with 17 assists on 22 field goals and 26 rebounds versus Iowa’s 12. Westbrook added 11 points, four rebounds and six assists.
Clark had seven points and made one of six 3-point attempts. He had four of the team’s 11 assists.
Bueckers scored six points on 3-of-6 shots and made his impact in other ways. He had six rebounds and four assists at halftime.
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