BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — UConn is heading to its 16th consecutive Elite Eight in women’s basketball with Saturday’s 75-58 victory over No. 3 Indiana, powered by a vintage Huskies’ run to begin the second half that broke the game open.
It started with a Paige Bueckers 3 off an inbounds play on UConn’s first possession of the second half.
Indiana wouldn’t even get the ball back before the Huskies managed to earn three more shot attempts on their end following back-to-back Hoosiers off-ball fouls, which Olivia Nelson-Ododa capitalized on with an offensive board and putback.
Next time down, Christyn Williams chipped in a lay-in off a give-and-go before Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards also joined in on the fun and the Hoosiers couldn’t get a shot to fall.
It may be a season unlike any UConn has experienced in some time, but for four minutes at the start of the second half, it was like old times for the Huskies.
Within a blink of an eye, their four-point halftime lead mushroomed to 20 behind the 2-seeded Huskies’ lockdown defense, complete control of the boards and a humming offense that produced 12 points off layups alone.
Indiana launched a brief rally, pulling within 11 midway through the fourth quarter, but the damage had already been done.
“We probably needed to stay out there,” Indiana head coach Teri Moren said. “We went back into the locker room and made some adjustments, but we came back out in the third quarter and it was just really a bugaboo for us.”
The Hoosiers end their season at 24-9.
With a win over NC State on Monday in the regional final, the Huskies would advance to a 14th straight Final Four — far from a certainty earlier this season, as the Huskies struggled at times without Bueckers for 19 games and star freshman Azzi Fudd for 11 with knee and foot injuries, respectively. The third-quarter run was a noted change after UConn had struggled in the round of 32 against a physical UCF team, scoring just 52 points on sub-30% shooting.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he anticipated that was more of a one-off based on the matchup than a symptom of a broader issue. Saturday’s performance, and particularly the Huskies’ third-quarter spark, proved that to be true.
“We knew exactly where we were going. We knew where the ball was going. We knew where the shots were coming from. We could pick and choose which shots we wanted to take, and we got more layups than we had gotten in the previous two quarters,” Auriemma said. “I’ve seen it a lot over 20 some years. But this year, I appreciate it more because it’s been harder to come by.”
Indiana, which fell to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament championship game, entered the matchup boasting an experienced group headlined by super senior Ali Patberg and WNBA prospect Grace Berger. The Hoosiers were hoping to reach back-to-back Elite Eights after taking down 1-seed NC State in the Sweet 16 last season.
While the disciplined Hoosiers were hot to start, UConn’s relatively younger guard corps, headlined by Bueckers and Fudd, settled in to win the battle of the backcourts, demonstrated well beyond their third-quarter charge. The Huskies, who have prided themselves on their defense all season, held Indiana to under 60 points for just the sixth time this year. Limiting Berger to 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting was a big part of that.
Patberg led the Hoosiers with 16 points. Bueckers and Williams had 15 points apiece to lead UConn.
“Playing Indiana is probably as difficult an assignment as there is for your guards,” Auriemma said. “Their guards put so much pressure on your guards. They’re so aggressive with the ball. And I thought we did an amazing job defensively. I thought that was the difference in the game, that we were able to get the stops that we needed and not let them play to their strengths, which was let their guards really, really go off.”
“We’ve faced some really good defensive teams, but they were awesome,” said Moren, who also pointed to the Huskies’ physicality as a difference-maker. “They were terrific today, UConn.”
Bueckers was the most aggressive she’s been since returning from injury Feb. 25 — by the middle of the third quarter, she’d already surpassed her previous high for shots attempted in a game since her return. She ultimately finished with 15 points — nine of which were in the decisive third-quarter — on 7 for 17 shooting. Williams matched her with 15 points as well to lead the Huskies.
After an uneventful start to the postseason for UConn’s post players, they came through just as meaningfully as the guards to propel the Huskies to the Elite Eight. Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards nearly out-rebounded the Hoosiers single-handedly, 24-27, awarding UConn ample second-chance opportunities off 15 offensive boards.
“We’re a good offensive team, and to give us more than one shot, that’s allowing us to do what we do best,” Auriemma said. “But it takes a lot of work and not everybody is willing to do it.”
Monday’s No. 1 vs. no. 2 matchup between NC State and UConn features groups boasting different types of experience. The Wolfpack play an upperclassmen-heavy group, but will be participating in their first Elite Eight since 1998 following a come-from-behind-win over Notre Dame earlier Saturday. The Huskies are fueled by their youth, but have six players who have played in at least one Final Four.
Indiana may have been one of the Huskies’ toughest challenges of the season, and they may have succeeded in stopping them, but with NC State and potentially Stanford or Texas after that in Minneapolis, the road won’t get any easier from here.
“You’ve got to go out and beat their ass. They’re not going to lose,” Auriemma said. “Nobody is going to lose to you in this tournament. You’ve got to go out and beat them. It’s getting harder and harder every year, let me tell you.”