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‘It was very ugly but we got the dub’: UConn finds a way to win in physical battle with UCF

In a tournament that’s all about survive and advance, the Huskies did just that on Monday night.

Paige Bueckers and the UConn women’s basketball team survived a rough game with UCF Monday night.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In March, aesthetics don’t matter — wins do. And on Monday night, UConn women’s basketball defeated the 7-seed UCF Knights 52-47 to advance to its 28th consecutive Sweet 16.

Throw out the numbers, the shooting percentages, the way it looked, even the final score. In the end, the Huskies came out on top and kept their season alive.

“We could have just as easily let that game get away from us and we didn’t,” Geno Auriemma said. “There’s something to be said for that. That you can win a game that you probably will look back and say, ‘I’m not sure how we won the game.’ But we did.”

“We didn’t have our best game today, but I’m really proud of our team. We grinded it out,” Christyn Williams added. “It was very ugly but we got the dub. That’s all that matters.”

That’s especially true in this year’s NCAA Tournament, where upsets have been commonplace through the first two rounds. Two other 2-seeds — Iowa and Baylor — were already knocked out by the time UConn tipped off against UCF. Two double-digit seeds made the Sweet 16 while two others came up a single possession short of doing the same. Not a single regional still features the top four seeds.

March Madness has lived up to its name so far and Monday night was no different.

“I do think at this time of the year, [blowouts] should be an exception rather than the rule,” Auriemma said. “Over the years, we’ve kind of made it seem commonplace but if you look around the country, these games are supposed to be difficult. They’re supposed to be tough.”

UConn’s win over UCF was as tough as they come. The game took on a physical, intense tone from the very start when Aaliyah Edwards and the Knights’ Diamond Battles each went to the floor when Edwards tried to save the ball on the Huskies’ second possession, which sparked a brief altercation between the two players.

Later, Paige Bueckers and UCF’s Tay Sanders both refused to let go of a jump ball and needed to be separated by teammates and officials. In the second half, Bueckers took a forearm to the neck from Battles that sent the sophomore to the hardwood.

A combined 45 fouls were called between the two teams and 43 free throws were taken.

“We knew it was gonna be like that from the tip-off,” Williams said. “It was gonna be an aggressive game and a physical game. We just fought back and that was the only thing we really could do was just hold our own and fight back. That’s exactly what happened. We just kept throwing punches and eventually they backed down.”

UConn did struggle through the opening 10 minutes, though. The Huskies trailed by as many as eight points in the first quarter and were down 18-12 when the buzzer sounded. Afterward, there were conflicting opinions about what caused the slow start.

From UCF’s vantage point, UConn didn’t handle the physicality of the game well in the opening period.

“We were expecting to be physical, but I don’t think they were expecting us to be as physical,” Battles said. “I mean, we came out and did what we do best.”

But Auriemma felt the problem was more internal. With a sellout crowd packed into Gampel Pavilion — including a student section that was filled more than an hour before tip-off — the atmosphere was unlike any other this season before the game even began. While the Huskies fed off that energy down the stretch, they didn’t respond well in the early going.

“I thought the first quarter primarily, we were so hyped up,” Auriemma said. “What our students did today — which is unbelievable, right? They made it feel like an extra special game... — it also got us so amped up that shots that we normally make with our eyes closed in other games, we struggled with. So it took us a while to settle into the pace of the game.”

But from the second quarter on, UConn held a firm grip on the game. It started on the defensive end as UCF made just two shots in the period, but the Huskies also made an effort to get to the line and scored nine of their 14 points in the second off free throws to go into the locker room with a three-point lead.

While the Knights answered with five quick points out of the break to re-take the lead, UConn closed the third quarter on a 9-0 run to go up by eight — its largest advantage of the day to that point.

Even when UCF made one final run in the fourth quarter, the Huskies never let them get closer than three points. They also made their final four foul shots, which is significant considering they started 5-of-9 from the line.

In a game with no shortage of contact and physical play, Auriemma lauded his team for showing true toughness in the final few minutes.

“Some people think (toughness is) you making a show of how tough you are by how you act or what you say or your posturing or whatever,” he said. “Or you knock somebody on their ass and it’s a foul, and you think, I’ll show you that’s tough.

“Toughness is making all those free throws at the end. Toughness is getting a huge rebound at a big time. Toughness is Christyn making that 3 when she had to make it. I think we showed that. All the other stuff was just fluff.”

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fun. But UConn found a way to win, and at this point in the calendar, that’s the only thing that matters.

“This is a very emotional night and a very draining, very excruciating kind of night to go through,” Auriemma said. “You always have to earn it. I don’t think when they announced the NCAA Tournament, they go ‘First round, second round, and the regionals will be these 15 teams and UConn.’ We still have to play our way in.”