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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    UConn women pull away from Baylor and advance to Sweet 16

    UConn's Azzi Fudd (35) is guarded by Baylor's Ja'Mee Asberry in the first half of Monday night’s NCAA tournament second round game in Storrs. Fudd scored 22 points, including 16 in the decisive third quarter, as the second-seeded Huskies beat the No. 7. Bears 77-58 to advance to their 29th consecutive Sweet 16. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Lou Lopez Senechal (11) drives to the basket as Baylor's Ja'Mee Asberry (21) defends in the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, top, reaches over Baylor's Caitlin Bickle (51) in the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Lou Lopez Senechal (11) celebrates with students after her team's win over Baylor in a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Dorka Juhasz (14) reacts in the second half of a second-round college basketball game after she was fouled while making a basket against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Storrs — To even get to its first NCAA tournament regional in 1991, UConn was forced to edge Toledo 81-80 at Gampel Pavilion. And Geno Auriemma, UConn’s longtime coach, remembers thinking nothing could ever top that.

    On Monday, the resilience, the energy, the sold-out crowd, the victory all added up to what Auriemma called “one of the more gratifying wins that I’ve ever had in this building.”

    Azzi Fudd finished with 22 points, 16 in a critical third quarter, and Aaliyah Edwards had 19 despite battling foul trouble as No. 2 UConn topped No. 7 Baylor 77-58 Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament, sending the Huskies to their 29th straight Sweet 16.

    “I’m just really proud of my team this year because there’s never been a UConn season like this one,” said Auriemma, who bear-hugged his starters one by one as they came off the floor with time winding down.

    “For them to still get a place where a whole bunch of other UConn teams have gotten to, I think that says a lot about these kids. Remarkable.”

    Dorka Juhasz had 11 points, Caroline Ducharme 10 points, Aubrey Griffin 12 rebounds and Nika Muhl, the floor general, 10 assists and a buzzer-beating 3-point field goal prior to halftime for UConn (31-5), which advanced to meet No. 3 Ohio State in the Sweet 16 at 4 p.m. Saturday in Seattle (ABC). Ohio State edged No. 6 North Carolina 71-69 Monday.

    The top four seeds in the Seattle 3 Regional advanced to the Sweet 16, as No. 1 Virginia Tech will meet No. 4 Tennessee also Saturday.

    The Huskies, who battled injuries throughout the season, at one time needing to postpone a game because they didn’t have enough players, will be bidding for their 15th straight Final Four, March 31-April 2 in Dallas.

    Baylor, which finished 20-13, made 12 3-point field goals, one game after they had 14 in a first-round victory over Alabama.

    But whereas Baylor coach Nicki Collen thought her team would gain the momentum with UConn’s Edwards, a 6-foot-3 forward who has dominated the postseason thus far, going to the bench with her third foul and then her fourth, she was somewhat astonished as the Huskies used it to their advantage instead.

    Edwards picked up her fourth foul with 7:19 to play in the third quarter and UConn leading 42-37. Baylor soon closed the gap to 44-43.

    That’s when Fudd, who missed 22 games with a right knee injury, only returning five games ago for the start of the Big East Conference tournament, began swishing her shots.

    She hit a jump shot for a three-point cushion at 46-43, drove to the basket for a 48-46 edge and made a shot off the dribble with 4:43 to play in the third quarter for a 50-46 advantage. Juhasz followed that with a spin move for a six-point lead.

    Fudd hit an inbounds pass for a 3, Griffin scored on assist from Muhl and Fudd scored five more before the end of the quarter, at which time UConn led 62-50.

    “Ironically, it was the opposite,” Collen said of gaining the advantage with Edwards on the bench. “Aubrey Griffin came in and to me was the difference-maker for them and it just goes to show you it’s not always about who scores the points. And obviously Azzi Fudd looked like the the Azzi we were watching in November before she got hurt.”

    “Azzi’s trying to be humble here,” Muhl said later, “but if she misses 100 shots that game, I would still get her the last shot for the win.”

    UConn led 40-35 after a hotly contested first half which featured three officials’ reviews and a great deal of hop, skipping and jumping down the sidelines from Collen.

    Muhl’s heave to beat the buzzer at halftime sent the entire UConn team on to the floor to greet her in celebration.

    Edwards had 12 first-half points but picked up her third foul with 30.2 seconds to play, Baylor having pulled within two at 37-35 on a 3 pointer by Jaden Owens, her third of the half without a miss and Baylor’s eighth from long range.

    UConn trailed by as many as six, 24-18 after a 3 by Bella Fontleroy. But the Huskies responded with nine straight points to take a 27-24 advantage, with Edwards starting things with a jump shot and Caroline Ducharme following that with a 3.

    UConn took the lead back at 25-24 and then extended the lead to nine.

    Baylor had a basket taken away after a review of a foul by Caitlin Bickle, giving UConn a 33-26 lead and the Huskies made it 35-26 on a drive by Lou Lopez Senechal with 4:54 remaining.

    Auriemma said he saw the Huskies’ sense of purpose shift in the second half.

    “That whole first half was struggle, struggle, struggle, struggle,” he said. “And we came out in the second half and I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t think we’d win the game.

    “... Usually we come into this tournament, we got everybody healthy, we’re rolling and we storm through the tournament, you know? And this year none of that was true. Everything was a struggle. Everything was hard.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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