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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    No. 10 UConn women go to duo of Bueckers, Edwards once again to beat Villanova

    UConn’s Paige Bueckers, right, leads a breakaway during a women’s basketball game against St. John’s on Feb. 4 at Gampel Pavilion. Bueckers is averaging 30.5 points over the last two games to led the Huskies. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Storrs — The dynamic duo of Paige Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards are as reliable as the sunrise. When they step on the court, they shine.

    With the productive pair leading the way, the 10th-ranked UConn women’s basketball team beat Villanova 67-46 Wednesday at Gampel Pavilion in its regular-season home finale.

    Bueckers (31 points) and Edwards (14 points, 11 rebounds) combined for 45 points for the Huskies (25-5, 17-0), who won their fifth straight. They had already clinched the Big East regular-season title prior to Wednesday and received the trophy after the game.

    The Huskies have heavily relied on the duo this season with their depth depleted by five players suffering season-ending injuries.

    Few players in the country have been as lethal as Bueckers and Edwards in recent weeks.

    Edwards, a 6-foot-3 senior forward, finished with her ninth double-double in the last 11 games. She remained patient while battling a physical defense.

    “Aaliyah did a really good job of keeping it simple and not trying to do too much,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “But she had to work her brains out for whatever she got.”

    Edwards added: “I just played my game and played smart. ... I think I handled that well.”

    Bueckers has scored at least 20 points in 12 of the last 14 games and averaged 30.5 points in the last two. She had an efficient game against Villanova, going 11-for-15 from the field while the rest of the Huskies converted 13 of 39 shots.

    UConn’s two top scorers could use some help, though, to increase the odds the Huskies will play deep into March. No other UConn player scored more than seven points.

    Bueckers has faith in her teammates.

    “We’re extremely confident in every single one of us that steps out on the floor can be a scoring threat,” Bueckers said. “Obviously, me and Aaliyah’s two-game has been something that has been developed for awhile. I think we have great chemistry there.

    “But, on any given night, I feel like anybody can be a scoring threat.”

    UConn closes out the regular season at Providence on Saturday.

    The Huskies never trailed, taking the lead for good at 4-2. But it was far from a comfortable victory.

    They needed Bueckers and Edwards, who came into the game averaging 20.5 and 18.2 points per game, to deliver once again.

    And they did while also receiving some key help from teammates when the game tightened in the fourth quarter.

    After the lead dropped to seven (49-42) with 8:22 remaining, the Huskies responded coming out of a timeout, finishing the game with an 18-4 run.

    Veteran guard Nika Muhl converted a driving layup — her first points of the game — to start the spurt. Freshman Ashlynn Shade added a big 3-pointer.

    Bueckers scored consecutive baskets to push the lead to 61-44 with 4:13 remaining. The Huskies finished off the Wildcats from there.

    “When they cut it to seven, we showed a lot,” Auriemma said. “We went on a really good run after that, so I was really proud of that.”

    From the start, Bueckers and Edwards sparked the Huskies, combining for 12 points to give UConn a 15-10 lead at the end of the first quarter.

    Fans held their collective breath when Muhl went down in pain after a Villanova player accidentally kneed her in the thigh near the end of the opening quarter.

    Muhl got up after a few minutes and gingerly walked off the court with the team trainer. Freshman Qadence Samuels replaced Muhl, who received a rousing ovation upon returning to the game a couple minutes into the second quarter.

    “The kid caught her with her knee and those are painful when you get hit in a certain spot in your thigh,” Auriemma said. “But she’s fine.”

    With Muhl back, the Huskies extended their lead to double digits. Edwards capped off a 9-0 run by sinking two free throws for a 24-12 edge.

    The advantage stood at 35-24 at the break. Bueckers already had 16 points and Edwards 10 points and nine rebounds.

    The Wildcats (17-11, 10-7) had a tough hill to climb with leading scorer Lucy Olsen, who came in averaging a Big East-best 23.6 points per game, struggling in the face of a tenacious defense.

    Olsen missed her first 11 shots before ending the drought with a layup with 2:25 left in the third quarter. She finished with six points on 2-for-16 shooting. Villanova shot 31% overall.

    “When you do a really good job on somebody, you need a little bit of help from them,” Auriemma said. “I thought we worked really, really hard. Obviously, it’s not easy. She’s a terrific, terrific player and hard to guard.”

    Still, the Huskies had some nervous moments down the stretch.

    Shortly after burying her second 3 for a 16-point lead, Bueckers picked up her fourth foul and headed to the bench with 5:21 left in the third quarter.

    UConn remained in front by double digits, carrying a 47-37 edge into the fourth quarter.

    With Bueckers back in the game, the Huskies watched their lead dip to seven.

    Auriemma called a timeout when Villanova’s Bella Runyon’s basket closed the gap to 49-42 with 8:22 remaining.

    That’s as close as the Wildcats would get.

    The Huskies made sure of that with a momentum-changing run. They swept the season series, winning the first meeting 81-60 on Jan. 31.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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