ALBANY, N.Y. – The UConn women’s basketball knows it’s not going to get any easier as the NCAA tournament continues.
Still, that didn’t stop the undefeated Huskies (35-0) from pulling away from Duke to earn a spot in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament for the 13th straight season with a 72-59 victory on Saturday before more than 10,658 fans at the Times Union Center.
With the win, UConn advances to the regional final where they will play defending NCAA champion South Carolina on Monday night at 7 p.m. (ESPN) for the right to advance to the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.
“With each game that you play in the tournament, it gets progressively more difficult to do what you normally do,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “You have to be able to figure out how to win a game whichever way the game is being played.
“Today wasn’t one of those games where you just run up and down and shoot 25 threes and everything goes great. You have to grind it out against a good team. That’s part of what this tournament is all about. So I’m proud of these guys because we had to do a lot of things today to win the game, and our defense was fabulous, and then these two guys here were really, really good at both ends of the floor,” he said.
Duke (24-9) trailed by seven points in the second quarter before the Huskies held them scoreless over the next 5:30 and extended their lead to 14 points. Connecticut scored the final eight points of the second half capped off by Gabby Williams beating the buzzer to give the Huskies a 20-point advantage at halftime, 40-20.
In the third quarter, Duke cut the lead to 13 points before the Huskies again pushed the lead to 20 points.
“I think at the beginning we were a little lazy with our press and kind of giving too many lay-ups and open (three-point shots),” UConn’s Gabby Williams said. “I think once we slowed down, started forcing some tougher shots, making sure it was harder for (Duke guard Lexie) Brown and (Duke guard Rebecca) Greenwell to catch the ball, and just kind of got into our rhythm.”
UConn’s Naphessa Collier added, “I think there was a lot of times during the games where we were really, really good at our defense, and then there was a couple times where we slipped a little bit, but I think overall, we did a great job.”
Collier had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies while Katie Lou Samuelson and Williams added 15 points each. Azura Stevens, who played two seasons at Duke before transferring to Connecticut, had eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds for the Huskies.
Leaonna Odom had 22 points to lead Duke. “You know, we were spending so much time getting out on Rebecca Greenwell and Lexie Brown that there were a lot of places to dribble the ball to, and she took advantage of that,” Auriemma said.
“You’re not going to beat a really good team like Duke and think that you’re going to take everything away from them. You’re going to have to give up something. You’ve just got to choose, okay, this is what we’re willing to live with, and she took advantage of it. She’s really good around the basket. She’s really athletic. I’m sure she starts making jump shots, she’ll be really, really a handful for everybody,” he said.
The days of blowout victories are in the rear view mirror for the remainder of the season.
“It’s not as easy as we make it looks sometimes,” Auriemma said. “This is not easy stuff. This idea that, well, (Connecticut) have all the best players, of course they should win every game by 40. I don’t know but every single kid in Duke’s starting lineup was probably first-team All-American. So when you’re playing against pretty good players, you shouldn’t be able to win by the numbers that we win by sometimes, and certainly not in the NCAA Tournament. That makes no sense. Not at this stage of the tournament anyway.”
South Carolina (29-6), the No. 2 seed in the Albany region, advanced to the regional final with a 79-63 victory over No. 11 seed Buffalo. The Huskies beat the Gamecocks in South Carolina by 25 points on February 1 in South Carolina.