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    Wednesday, February 21, 2024

    Juhasz, Edwards have made it ‘big’ for No. 2 Huskies, as they prepare to face No. 7 Baylor

    UConn's Dorka Juhasz (14) and Aaliyah Edwards (3) celebrate from the bench during a Jan. 23 game against DePaul in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn forward Dorka Juhasz looks on during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgetown, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
    UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, left, fouls St. John's Jillian Archer as she reaches for a rebound in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Storrs — A selection of general managers from WNBA teams contacted UConn coach Geno Auriemma throughout the season about the possibility of drafting graduate forward Dorka Juhasz.

    Each time, Auriemma sang her praises.

    And each time, Auriemma crossed his fingers.

    “I kept telling all the GMs and everybody that calls me, I said, ‘Look, I think Dorka’s probably, like, a top-10 draft pick’ and I kept harping on that and then she would come to practice sometimes and do things and I would go, ‘I’m lying to these guys.’

    “Then she would come to practice and I would go, ‘She could be a top-five pick.’ So the inconsistency was driving me crazy. The same with Aaliyah (Edwards).”

    Headed into Monday’s second-round NCAA tournament game against No. 7 Baylor at Gampel Pavilion (9 p.m., ESPN), second-seeded UConn’s frontcourt is no longer inconsistent. Since the beginning of the Big East tournament, it’s been dominant.

    Edwards, who is 6-foot-3, had three straight games with double figures in points and rebounds in the league tournament to earn Most Outstanding Player honors. In Saturday’s NCAA tournament opener she recorded a career high with 28 points, connecting on her first 10 shots.

    Edwards, a junior, is averaging a monstrous 21.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in the postseason. Juhasz, a 6-5 graduate student, is averaging 14.5 points and 9.8 rebounds over the last four games.

    The two also combined for 11 assists, seven steals and five blocked shots in a 95-52 first-round romp over Vermont.

    “Having Aaliyah as my post partner, she’s been having an amazing season,” Juhasz said. “She’s playing at All-American level. Just having her, I think we’re great together because we kind of complement each other. We’re similar in a lot of things but we’re also pretty different. That makes us pretty special.”

    “I would say about D, she’s very humble off the court but once you get on the court, she’s fierce and I don’t think that anyone should take that lightly,” Edwards said. “She’s a force inside and outside.”

    Edwards has a penchant for hitting mid-range jump shots while Juhasz has 23 3-point field goals, stretching opposing defenses.

    In addition, both have taken to going by defenders to the hoop, given more space to work in the paint now that sharpshooters Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme have returned from injuries, necessitating that the defense spread itself more thinly.

    “Dorka did some things today which I wasn’t sure she was capable of doing, putting the ball on the floor and going past,” Auriemma said following the Big East championship game, a 67-56 win over Villanova. “Because there hasn’t been any room.

    “If we can keep that, then I think we’re a hard team to play because not every team has two post players that are mobile enough to handle both of those guys. ... So mostly the inconsistency went away and that’s what I was crossing my fingers about.”

    UConn outscored Vermont 54-10 in the paint Saturday. In the Big East tournament, the final total in three games was 116-38.

    Things get tougher from here for UConn (30-5), as it faces a Baylor team (20-12) with which it shares a great deal of history, including a memorable Elite Eight showdown in 2021 in San Antonio which sent UConn to the Final Four.

    This Baylor roster may not have a 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner to dominate the court the way the Bears once did, but they still have plenty of grit, judging by an 18-point comeback in Saturday night’s 78-74 first-round win over No. 10 Alabama. Alabama led 22-4 after one quarter.

    UConn then has potential matchups with No. 3 Ohio State and No. 1 Virginia Tech in the Seattle 3 Regional next weekend. Virginia Tech boasts two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, who is 6-6.

    “Yeah. We don’t,” Baylor coach Nicki Collen said Sunday of matching up with UConn’s size. “We have to use our speed, we have to box out early, we have to pursue the ball off the rim. We’re maybe quicker on the perimeter ... they’re longer. I mean, Aaliyah and Dorka dominate the defensive glass for them.”

    “I think we did a great job throughout the season just kind of finding the places we want to play and our teammates know where to pass the ball to us,” Juhasz said. “I’m pretty sure every single game (going forward) we’re going to come out strong and confident. We want to make sure our guards and everybody else can rely on us.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

    No. 2 UConn vs. No. 7 Baylor

    Location: Gampel Pavilion

    Tip: 9 p.m. (ESPN)

    Records: Baylor 20-12, UConn 30-5.

    Last game: Baylor beat No. 10 Alabama in the NCAA first round 78-74; UConn beat No. 15 Vermont in the NCAA first round 95-52.

    Last game’s starters: Baylor, 6-1 F Caitlin Bickle (12.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg), 5-8 G Jaden Owens (7.8 ppg, 5.8 apg, 1.8 spg), 5-5 G Ja’Mee Asberry (11.3 ppg, 1.5 spg), 6-0 G Bella Fontleroy (8.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg), 5-6 G Sarah Andrews (15.0 ppg, 4.4 apg).

    UConn, 6-3 F Aaliyah Edwards (16.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.2 bpg), 6-5 F Dorka Juhasz (14.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.1 apg), 6-1 G/F Lou Lopez Senechal (15.5 ppg), 5-11 G Azzi Fudd (14.7 ppg), 5-10 G Nika Muhl (7.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 7.9 apg, 1.4 spg).

    Noteworthy: Baylor came back from a 22-4 deficit after the first quarter in Saturday night’s first-round victory over Alabama. Ja’Mee Asberry had a career-high seven 3-point field goals for 26 points and the Bears scored the game’s final seven points. Exhilarating, right? “Yeah, there’s a high, but at the same time we have a lot to learn from that game, obviously, first quarter specifically,” said Baylor senior guard Jaden Owens, who had eight assists. “I think we keep the high but at the same time it’s on to the next. You go in with a positive mindset ... but at the same time refocus again.” If UConn’s players weren’t already aware of Baylor’s comeback potential, head coach Geno Auriemma gave them a reminder. “For the whole year coach was emphasizing, ‘Do not underestimate anybody,’” UConn junior guard Nika Muhl said. “We played some Big East teams that came (back) from us leading 20. ... Just having that in mind and never backing down, not even in the fourth quarter if we’re up 20, it doesn’t matter.” ... UConn is 5-4 all-time against Baylor, 2-0 in the NCAA tournament, including a 2021 Elite Eight matchup in the bubble in San Antonio, won by UConn 69-67. The Huskies got 28 points in that game from then-freshman Paige Bueckers and used a run of 19 straight points for their comeback. There was a disputed non-foul call at the end of the game. “It certainly has been a lot of games,” Auriemma said of the national rivalry with the Bears. “A lot of big games. I don’t know how many times we’ve played them but it seems like every time we do play them, there’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot of great players on the floor.” ... Auriemma said graduate student Lou Lopez Senechal and junior Aubrey Griffin will be available for the game after leaving Saturday’s matchup with Vermont due to injuries. ... This is the first meeting between the head coaches, UConn’s Auriemma and Baylor’s Nicki Collen. ... Former UConn graduate assistant Chloe Pavlech (2016-17, 2017-18 with two Final Fours) is an assistant coach at Baylor. ... Baylor finished its win over Alabama with 14 made 3-pointers. ... Junior guard Sarah Andrews represented Baylor on the All-Big 12 first team while rookie Darianna Littlepage-Buggs, a 6-1 guard/forward, was named the unanimous Big 12 Freshman of the Year. ... In Saturday’s win over Vermont, UConn had all 10 of its players score for the first time this season.

    `— Vickie Fulkerson

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