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The Aftermath: UConn breaks out of rock fight to beat Villanova

The Huskies let the Wildcats dictate the pace until the third quarter when they finally pulled away.

Photo: Ian Bethune

For the first 25 minutes on Wednesday night, UConn played right into Villanova’s hands. The Wildcats, who entered the game as the 24th-slowest team in the nation, dragged the Huskies into an old-fashioned rock fight.

UConn had just five fast-break points at halftime while going 3:55 without a basket to close the first quarter, followed by a pair of 2+ minute scoring droughts in the second. At the midway point, the Huskies had just 30 possessions — below their usual pace of 72.2 per game.

Without pushing the pace, UConn’s offense bogged down in the half-court.

“Sometimes we stand around and we try to play too much one-on-one, and that doesn't work for us,” Geno Auriemma told SNY after the game.

Meanwhile, the Huskies were a mess on the defensive end. They struggled to contain Lucy Olsen and Maddie Webber, who combined for 23 of the Wildcats’ 36 points in the first half. The hosts also grabbed nine offensive rebounds, which allowed them to stay within one despite UConn shooting 50.0 percent to Villanova’s 40.6 percent.

“The whole first half, we were a little bit lax in keeping Lucy out of the lane,” Auriemma said.

“We got killed on the offensive boards in the first half,” he added later.

That theme continued early on after halftime. Olsen converted an old-fashioned 3-point play in the lane to put the Wildcats up by two and they went back ahead with 6:35 left in the quarter.

To that point in the contest, everything had gone the way Villanova hoped.

“Villanova is the hardest team in the league, I think, to play and to prepare for because they make you have to make so many decisions on defense,” Auriemma said. “So our young guys have never played them before. They were in the dishwasher a couple of times running around.”

Finally, UConn decided it’d had enough and it broke out of the rock fight thanks to a convergence of three near-simultaneous changes: Edwards got the offense going, the defense pushed Villanova out of its comfort zone, and the Huskies began to dictate the pace.

It started when Edwards snapped UConn out of another scoring drought — 3:31 this time. The Huskies piled up 10 straight points — six from Edwards.

“Aaliyah Edwards was fantastic,” Auriemma told SNY.

UConn also deployed a more aggressive defense to force Villanova to bring the ball up quicker. While it didn’t lead to many turnovers — just three in the third quarter — it threw the hosts out of their rhythm. The Wildcats made just two shots over the final 6:35 of the third quarter.

“We upped the pressure a little bit and I think that sped them up just a little bit more than they wanted to,” Auriemma said.

UConn also crashed the glass better and gave up just five offensive rebounds in the second half, which only led to two second-chance points. When the Huskies got the ball, they didn’t wait around. They found an outlet to one of their ball handlers and pushed it up the floor.

That let the offense find its groove for the first time all night. UConn went 10-14 in the period with just two turnovers, scoring 22 points — its highest total in a quarter in the game. From there, the Huskies found themselves in the driver’s seat.

“You have to convert offensively and that way you force Villanova to have to make shots,” Auriemma explained. “If they can play with the lead, or it's a two-, three-point game, it's [tough]. So we needed to get some separation.”

At the end of the third quarter, UConn led by 10 — the first time it had gone up by double-digits. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Huskies had earned a 21-point victory. Over those final 15 minutes, they outscored Villanova 39-17.

“We just played really, really, really solid that whole second half,” Auriemma said.

Nika Mühl’s bounce-back

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