UConn women survive upset bid by Buffalo to reach the Sweet 16
Storrs — There was a point during the game when UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson, whose balky back has been the topic of conversation around here lately, sidled up to coach Geno Auriemma on the Huskies' sideline and gave him some info.
"She said, 'In case you were wondering, like, I'm good. I'm not coming out,'" Auriemma said of Samuelson's edict. "Like, OK, anything else you want to tell me that I should know?"
In what was the final home game of their decorated careers, UConn seniors Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, both All-Americans, only added to their ownership of the team and their Gampel Pavilion legend in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Buffalo.
Collier finished with 27 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and two steals and Samuelson had 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists as second-seeded UConn dispatched a No. 10 Buffalo team which has made upsets its trademark for two straight NCAA tournaments and had another one in mind late Sunday night.
UConn's two seniors, who played 40 minutes each, said goodbye to Gampel with an 84-72 victory which took a great deal of effort over the fearless Bulls, but left them unbeaten at home during their careers and propelled UConn (33-2) to a 26th straight Sweet 16 appearance.
Collier and Samuelson will leave the program later this year, but not just yet, as the Huskies' two highest scoring teammates of all time, combining as of Sunday for 4,636 points and a 143-4 record in their UConn careers.
UConn will next play in the Sweet 16 Friday in Albany against the winner of Monday's game between No. 3 Maryland and No. 6 UCLA.
"That was a lot of work," Auriemma said following a game in which Buffalo trailed by eight as late as the 1-minute, 11-second mark of the fourth quarter. "That was really hard. Even when it looked really easy for long stretches of the game it was hard. They made life really difficult for us at both ends of the floor.
"A lot of credit goes to them. She's got a bunch of tough kids over there. ... We played a really good team. The game reflected that."
Buffalo, with its own high-scoring senior in 2,000-point guard Cierra Dillard, finished the season 24-10. Dillard closed her decorated career with 29 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals, including shooting three free throws — after being fouled by Samuelson shooting a 3 with 2:31 to play in the third quarter — to a chorus of boos from the UConn fans.
Buffalo won the Mid-American Conference tournament to earn the league's automatic bid for the second straight season and looked to build on last year's Sweet 16 run.
Last season the Bulls earned the No. 11 seed and promptly beat No. 6 South Florida (102-79, the most points scored by a double-digit seed in the history of the tournament) and No. 3 Florida State (86-64) on Florida State's home floor.
They continued the trend into 2019 by upsetting No. 7 Rutgers in the first round of the tournament Friday and, as far as coach Felisha Legette-Jack's team was concerned, 11-time national champion UConn, even with all its history, was next.
"What a great, great team I have. What fighters I have. What resiliency I was able to be a part of," Legette-Jack said. "I just don't know how not to believe. I don't ever, ever, ever think that we can't win. ... I think that we really went out there and did a tremendous job of getting the respect of the nation."
UConn freshman Christyn Williams had 17 points, including three first-half 3-point field goals, and Crystal Dangerfield had 11 points and four assists for UConn, which led 52-37 at halftime.
That included a five-point play by Samuelson at the 5:50 mark of the second quarter, when she knocked in a shot and was fouled by Buffalo's Brittany Morrison. Morrison was called for a technical foul — giving her four fouls for the game — and Samuelson followed by hitting the two technical free throws, then the foul shot which completed the three-point play. That pushed the margin to 45-22.
UConn still led 73-49 with 2:48 remaining in the third quarter, but Buffalo got to within 73-55 before the quarter was over on a 3-pointer by Autumn Jones.
The Bulls closed the gap to 75-67 with 2:36 to play in the game on three straight free throws by Morrison, forcing UConn, which went a span of 5:44 in the fourth quarter without scoring, to grind out the ending from the foul line.
Ultimately, though, UConn will depart Storrs for the final time this season with 94 straight home wins. The Huskies' last loss at Gampel Pavilion was on Jan. 5, 2013, against Notre Dame (73-72).
"I think being here and playing in Gampel specifically is a different environment than anywhere else and our fan base is always there supporting us no matter what the outcome of the game is," Samuelson said. "I think that's the biggest thing, feeling that presence no matter what.
"Our fans are the greatest in the country and they have been consistently, so for us being able to play these last two games here it was something special. Not everyone gets to do that."