women’s basketball Auriemma, Huskies exhale
STORRS — Geno Auriemma can exhale.
No. 2 UConn overcame a wild fourth-quarter push from No. 10 Buffalo to hold on for an 84-72 victory in the NCAA Tournament Sunday at Gampel Pavilion.
And with that, the Huskies (33-2) will head to Albany, N.Y., as part of their next step in the quest for a 12th national title. They’ll face either No. 3 Maryland or No. 6 UCLA in the Sweet 16 Friday at Times Union Center.
But first, let’s recap their high-stress second-round win over Buffalo:
MARCH MADNESS: It wasn’t easy, but frankly, Geno Auriemma didn’t expect it to be.
“Teams that you think are supposed to blow out the other team, it doesn’t always work out that way,” the UConn coach said, exhaling from a game that reinforced the unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament.
UConn’s journey to a 26th straight Sweet 16 — one behind Tennessee’s record from 1982-2008 — has been a grind, notwithstanding their 49-point romp over No. 15 Towson in the first round.
The Bulls cut what was once a 24-point deficit with 2:48 left in the third quarter down to just eight, 75-67, with 2:37 remaining. Ultimately, the Huskies held on for their closest second-round win in 20 years (86-84 over Xavier).
The Huskies had won 19 straight second-round games since then by an average of 41.4 points.
GAME-CHANGER: Napheesa Collier scored 27 points, perhaps none bigger than a layup with 2:16 left to push UConn’s lead back to double-digits, 77-67, and fizzle Buffalo’s dreams of a comeback.
“I’m not surprised,” freshman Christyn Williams said of Collier stepping up in crunch time. “Phee plays like that every game.”
There’s a reason why Auriemma is irked Collier was not among the four finalists (Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, Louisville’s Asia Durr, Iowa’s Megan Gustafson and Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale) for the prestigious Naismith Player of the Year award. Simply put, Collier, who’s averaging 21.1 points and 10.7 rebounds for a bona fide national championship contender, has been dominant.
“Clearly there’s some people that don’t think she’s that good,” teammate Katie Lou Samuelson said. “That’s their opinion, but I feel like she’s probably playing at the best she can be playing right now.”
Collier’s up to 22 double-doubles on the season, including five straight in the postseason.
OFF THE MARK: Crystal Dangerfield hit a milestone, surpassing 1,000 career points with a 3-pointer midway into the third quarter. Yet, she wasn’t in a mood to celebrate.
The junior sat the final 4:10 of the third quarter after picking up her fourth foul. She then returned for the start of the fourth and watched Buffalo rip off a 12-2 run to make things interesting.
Dangerfield finished with 11 points (2-of-7 shooting) and three turnovers over 35 minutes.
“When someone as important as Crystal goes to the bench, we had to adjust,” Samuelson said. “We all have to do a different role based off of that because she’s the one that runs us through everything.”
Without Dangerfield on the floor, the Huskies shot just 2-of-7.
REBOUNDING WOES: During his postgame press conference, Auriemma offered a thinly veiled critique of his team’s ability — or lack thereof — to grab rebounds, saying, “We learned a lot about ourselves tonight. It was a good night, a good night. Some things we already knew. I don’t like it.”
Buffalo pulled down 48 rebounds, including 25 on the offensive end, and outscored the Huskies 28-19 in second-chance points.
TOUGHNESS ON DISPLAY: Forget about easing Katie Lou Samuelson back into the lineup. Samuelson played all 40 minutes in just her second game back from injury.
Kinds of defines toughness, doesn’t it?
“Most definitely,” Williams said. “She’s obviously better, but with her injury, her playing 40 minutes, that’s a lot. She handled herself well, she played well. I’m proud of her for that.”
It was the seventh time this year she’s played 40 minutes and the first since Feb. 2 against Cincinnati.