‘I’ve never been more proud of any team,’ Auriemma says.
The mantra that “the best offense is a good defense” is a familiar thought when head coach Geno Auriemma presides over practice for the women’s basketball team at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center, especially with a team of seven out of 12 players who are freshmen and no seniors.
“I don’t remember one kid ever coming to Connecticut going, Coach, I don’t care if I shoot the ball one time, I just want to be the best defensive player in the country,” Auriemma says. “When they get here, they all think they can shoot their way into the lineup but it doesn’t take long for them to realize that in order for them to get any shots at the other end, they’re going to have to become really good defensively. They come here knowing they can score, and they leave here knowing if I learn to play defense — and get really good at it– Coach will give me an opportunity to score.”
With the starts and stops of this unusual season, a 3-point loss to No. 13 Arkansas in late January drove the message of defense home to Auriemma’s young squad and they completed an undefeated conference season in UConn’s return to the Big East with a 73-59 win over Marquette Monday night at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Freshman Paige Bueckers led the Huskies with 23 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists and was voted Most Outstanding Player in the tournament. Junior Christyn Williams had 16 points, freshman Nika Muhl added 11 points and junior Oliva Nelson-Ododa added 5 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Williams and Nelson-Ododa were named to the All-Tournament Team. The Huskies held Marquette to shooting 29% and its leading scorer, Selena Lott, to one basket a day after she scored 27 points against Creighton in the semifinal round.
Over the course of an unusual season – with games cancelled and long pauses due to the coronavirus pandemic, in their return to the Big East the Huskies were either first or second in 14 of 17 statistical categories, including No. 1 in scoring offense (82.6 points per game), scoring defense (52.6) and scoring margin (+30.6). Nationally, UConn is second in scoring margin, fifth in defense and seventh in offense.
In Saturday’s quarterfinal round, the Huskies’ defense did not allow any St. John’s player to reach double figures in scoring. The Red Storm’s Leilani Correia, who had 33 points in UConn’s 94-62 win on Feb. 3, had 7 points in the game. Villanova’s Madison Siegrist was the leading scorer (22.6 ppg) and rebounder (10 ppg) in the Big East this year and scored 30 points in a 78-72 overtime win over DePaul. Guarded by Williams, she scored one 3-point basket during the Huskies’ 84-39 semi-final win.
“Christyn’s taken on a defensive mindset for a big part of the second half of the season, and it’s allowed her to focus on the entire game, not just one aspect of it,” Auriemma said after the Villanova game. “I think sometimes she overthinks the game and complicates things for herself. Everyone has to be who they are. She’s a scorer and she should act like one, talk like one and walk like one. Every time she steps on the court, she should be ready to score. I think today[against Villanova] was the culmination of her being great defensively on a really tough assignment and just letting the natural part of who she is happen on the offensive end. We’re a championship team if Christyn Williams plays like that.”
Williams says playing better defense has helped her to score and find a more steady game.
“I am trying to become a more complete player consistently. I feel like I’ve grown a lot in different areas in my game,” she says. “That’s been my kind of focus going into the game rather than offense, and I feel like that’s helped me, just being aggressive and attacking, whether it’s defense or offense. [The coaches have] been putting me on their best guards, so I’ve definitely tried to take advantage of that just to get better each game.”
Bueckers says the Arkansas loss served as an instructive lesson in understanding the defense first philosophy.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball right now,” she says. “Ever since our loss against Arkansas, I felt like it was a lesson. We really started picking up on the defensive end. We learned a lot from that game. I feel like we’re making great momentum strides right now, playing our best basketball, really focusing on the scouting reports and what our game plan is and trying to stick to it.”
Monday’s Big East tournament championship is the Huskies’ 19th overall, dating back to its first run in the conference. The Huskies won eight of their 11 NCAA titles along with 37 regular season and tournament conference titles (19 regular season and 18 tournament) in the Big East. UConn has won 160 consecutive conference games spanning its time in both the Big East and American Athletic Conferences.
Reflecting on returning to the Big East tournament, Auriemma recalled his early days in Storrs when the goal was simply to make the conference tournament.
“It’s been great to be back in the Big East tournament. It’s what I grew up with as a coach,” he says. “To go from that to then not being in the league to being back in the league it felt pretty amazing. The three days of competition the way we played defensively, I’ve never been more proud of any team. All these young kids the way they’ve grown up over the course of the past four or five months, it’s been really refreshing to watch. The celebration the kids had after they won, I don’t remember quite a spontaneous and joyful celebration like these kids had. They’ve reinvigorated everyone associated with our program. They are just really unique kids. I’m really happy for them. My life doesn’t change that much winning another championship, but my life was changed tonight because I got a chance to see the way they celebrated. That was worth waiting six months for.”