UConn in comfortable territory in Portland 3 region full of stars

Mar 25, 2024; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) looks for an opening against the Syracuse Orange in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

PORTLAND, Ore. — If last year’s early exit from the Women’s NCAA Tournament is on the minds of his players, UConn coach Geno Auriemma doesn’t want to know about it.

“Half the team wasn’t here last year, so if it’s hanging over them, it’s only hanging over half of them,” said Auriemma, referring to UConn’s 73-61 Sweet Sixteen loss to Ohio State in Seattle. “Let’s hope the other half don’t know what happened last year.”

Auriemma’s UConn teams are 27-3 in the Sweet 16 over the years, so it shouldn’t be a problem when the No. 3 seed Huskies (31-5) face No. 7 seed Duke (22-11) in the latter of two games Saturday. In the earlier contest, No. 1 seed Southern California (28-5) squares off with No. 5 seed Baylor (26-7).

UConn has added an important weapon that was missing a year ago in junior Paige Bueckers, who sat out last season after undergoing ACL knee surgery. In last week’s 72-64 second-round victory over Syracuse, Bueckers had 32 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals. In an 86-64 first-round win over Jackson State, she totaled 28 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

“We have the best player in America. … The whole stat sheet says that she is,” Auriemma said after the Syracuse win. “And everybody who watched knows it, and we’re fortunate.”

Auriemma defended his statement during Friday’s press conference when a reporter suggested many consider Iowa’s Caitlin Clark as the nation’s premier talent.

“I’ll bet if you ask USC, they wouldn’t tell you Caitlin Clark is the best player,” said Auriemma, who has accumulated 1,211 wins and claimed 11 national championships in his 39 years coaching the Huskies. “If you asked LSU, they wouldn’t tell you. If you asked Texas, they wouldn’t tell you. Every coach thinks the player who is on their team is the best player.

“Listen, I’ve coached the best player in the country a lot more than anyone else coaching in this tournament. It’s OK for somebody else to say their player is. (Bueckers) has done more for our team than anybody else could have done for our team. I wouldn’t trade her for anybody else.”

Duke coach Kara Lawson wasn’t about to argue.

“Paige makes a big difference on that team,” Lawson said. “She is one of the best players in the country, pretty complete in every area. What stands out is there are not a lot of weaknesses. You have to be really disciplined, really sound in defending her. Even if you do that, she’s good enough to make plays. It’s about trying to make things as difficult as possible for her.”

Both teams have youth. Freshman guards KK Arnold and Ashlynn Shade start for UConn along with Bueckers and seniors Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl. Duke starts one senior, one junior and two sophomores along with freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa, with two freshmen and a sophomore in the regular rotation.

The last time the teams met was at Portland’s Moda Center in November 2022, when UConn destroyed Duke 78-50. The Blue Devils have turned over much of their roster since then, and Auriemma is impressed with this year’s group, which knocked off Ohio State 75-63 in last week’s second round.

“A lot of times, really young teams are the most dangerous,” Auriemma said. “They (Duke) haven’t experienced a crushing loss in the NCAA Tournament that they’re carrying around with them. They’re free and clear, letting it rip, letting them play. They have a big win under their belt. They’re a tough matchup. They have really good players, are well-coached and very confident in their own abilities.”

USC also has someone in the conversation for the nation’s best player in freshman JuJu Watkins, who averages 26.9 points and 7.3 rebounds. The National Freshman of the Year is also a volume shooter, having taken 710 shots in 32 games — an average of more than 22 per contest.

“She is really, really talented,” Baylor coach Nicki Collen said. “When JuJu is in transition, that’s the most challenging space. When she has space to operate, she is such a rhythm player.

“When she gets in her spots, she is dangerous because of her size. Whether it’s off the jab or off the bounce, she is really, really good in isolation. She probably plays the highest volumes of isolations of anybody in the country and does it pretty successfully.”

Trojans coach Lindsay Gottlieb has benefitted greatly from the Ivy League rule that doesn’t allow a graduate year for players. Three players transferred to USC from Ivy schools before this season — Kaitlyn Davis (Columbia), McKenzie Forbes (Harvard) and Kayla Padilla (Penn). All three are starters.

“I think that’s the best rule in the history of rules,” quipped Gottlieb, who also played at an Ivy school, Brown.

Baylor knocked off Virginia Tech 75-72 in the second round behind a career performance from Jada Walker. After taking a 7.5-point scoring average into the game, Walker lit it up for 28 points against the Hokies.

“They’re a tough, scrappy team,” Forbes said of the Bears. “They play with a fast pace. They rebound very well. We’ll have to be locked in on being disciplined, especially in transition, trying to get stops and to win the rebound battle.”

–Kerry Eggers, Field Level Media

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