Edwards leads No. 2 UConn to easy 95-52 win over Vermont in NCAA women’s tourney opener
Storrs — Aaliyah Edwards got the ball from UConn teammate Dorka Juhasz in transition in the first quarter Saturday afternoon. She made the layup and drew a foul, the momentum carrying her toward the crowd.
Then, Edwards stopped to slap hands, jubilantly, with a fan in the first row of the UConn student section at Gampel Pavilion as the Huskies charged to the lead.
“It was nice,” Edwards said during the postgame, smiling. “I was kind of falling into the crowd anyway so I felt the energy and the love from the student section. You know, we’re playing in Gampel. It’s the first game here and you could feel the energy, feel the love from that atmosphere.”
In what UConn coach Geno Auriemma called one of the best performances from her since she arrived in Storrs, Edwards finished with a career-high 28 points, 18 in the first half, as the second-seeded Huskies overwhelmed No. 15 Vermont 95-52 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament’s Seattle 3 Regional.
The Huskies, bidding for their unprecedented 15th straight Final Four bid, reached the second round of the tournament Monday, where they will meet No. 7 Baylor at Gampel at a time to be announced. Baylor advanced by coming from behind to topple No. 10 Alabama 78-74.
Dorka Juhasz added 15 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks for UConn (30-5), Caroline Ducharme had 12 points and Nika Muhl nine points and 10 assists before a crowd of 8,043.
“The object of every kid growing up in any sport,” Auriemma said of Edwards, who is averaging 21.5 points and 11.8 rebounds thus far in the postseason, “’I want to hit a three-run homer in the World Series. I want to score the winning touchdown.’
“Whatever the case may be. When you’re a kid playing basketball, ‘I want to play in the NCAA tournament. I want to be that person that everybody talks about that plays great in March.’ That’s just something you have to want to have and want to do. ... I think there’s probably even more in her than what we saw today.”
Auriemma said the NCAA tournament can bring out the best in teams and the worst. That’s why he was a bit anxious headed into Saturday’s opener, the first time the Huskies played since March 6 in the Big East tournament championship.
UConn, however, with all 10 of its players scoring in the game, sprinted to a 53-20 lead at halftime, eclipsing the number of points Vermont opponents were averaging per game this season (52.8).
UConn shot 66.7% in the half, outscoring the Catamounts 26-8 in the second quarter.
Ducharme began the second quarter with a 3-pointer to push the lead to 30-12, commencing a 9-0 run for the Huskies, who would add a 12-0 run later in the quarter capped by a basket by Lou Lopez Senechal.
UConn finished by outscoring Vermont 54-10 in the paint, with it becoming apparent that the Catamounts, who had won 17 straight games coming in, had no answer for the dominance of the 6-foot-3 Edwards and the 6-5 Juhasz.
“We couldn’t match her athleticism, strength, explosion,” Vermont coach Alisa Kresge said of Edwards. “... She’s just a worker. She works so hard. She never gives up. She’s really talented and that was quite a mismatch for us.”
“I think we started the game off really well and hit ‘em with the first punch,” Edwards said. “I think that probably from the jump ball I knew personally, individually, that I would be able to dominate inside and I think Dorka held her own, too. I think we just capitalized on every possession that we could.”
Azzi Fudd, who returned from a right knee injury at the start of the Big East tournament, drew the start against Vermont in place of Aubrey Griffin, who has struggled with back spasms, Fudd’s first start since Dec. 4.
Griffin played just 6 minutes, 26 seconds, all in the first half. Also, Lopez Senechal played only 19:43, limping off the court early in the third quarter and returning briefly to the UConn locker room. Auriemma said he held both out the remainder of the game for precautionary reasons.
In all, Auriemma was pleased with the tournament opener, with UConn applying more pressure on defense than it has in past weeks due to the increase in numbers, with all 10 players available.
“It was really gratifying today to see us come out and start the way we did and compete with the energy that we had and the focus we had,” Auriemma said. “And then you get, you know, amazing performances from Aaliyah and Dorka. I just think that’s a great way to start.”
It was UConn’s 29th straight victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The win marked the Huskies’ 26th 30-win season in the last 30 years.
Catherine Gilwee had 14 points for Vermont (25-7), the America East champion.