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Bueckers leads No. 1 UConn to Big East quarterfinal win over St. John's, 77-41

Mohegan — Nobody can be good playing only in the halfcourt.

That was UConn coach Geno Auriemma's declaration after Saturday's 77-41 victory over St. John's in the quarterfinals of the Big East women's basketball tournament at fanless and oddly quiet Mohegan Sun Arena, marking the Huskies return to the league tournament that has been so memorable for them so many times.

"I don't care who you are, you're not going to be able to score enough points," Auriemma said. "Our halfcourt offense is never going to be great. It's just not. We have too many players that are new to this. But if our players can create some transition baskets ... "

UConn scored 30 points in transition against St. John's, as opposed to the two it had in Monday night's regular-season finale against Marquette, seemingly a concentrated effort as the No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Huskies begin the postseason.

"Against Marquette we didn't create as many defensive opportunities," Auriemma said. "Today we caused a lot of live ball turnovers that gave us an opportunity to get out and run. ... That's what you have to do. You have to create transition baskets for yourself. They're not just going to happen on their own."

Paige Bueckers finished with 17 points, Christyn Williams 14 and Olivia Nelson-Ododa had her second straight double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds as UConn (22-1) advanced to the semifinals of the tournament Sunday against No. 5 Villanova (3 p.m., FS1).

Villanova (15-5) defeated three-time defending champion DePaul, the fourth seed, 78-72 in overtime in Saturday's quarterfinals.

One of the early aggressors on defense for UConn, however, freshman Nika Muhl, crumpled to the ground just 2 minutes, 16 seconds into the second half against St. John's and had to be helped off the floor, favoring her left ankle.

When Muhl returned to the bench later in the half, she was using crutches.

Auriemma called it an ankle sprain but said he would know more later in the day.

"Nika's a pretty tough kid, as tough as they come," Auriemma said. "If I were to bet ... Nika's going to give it every opportunity overnight and then she's going to try to play. If she doesn't play (Sunday), it's because it's serious."

Muhl finished with five points, four rebounds and four steals.

It was after Muhl's departure that Bueckers, her fellow freshman and good friend — having referred to themselves earlier this season as "twins" — heated up.

Bueckers, who scored on the front end of a fast break assisted by Muhl on the play where Muhl got hurt, had 11 points in the third quarter. Bueckers scored seven straight points, adding a 3-pointer, then driving and laying the ball off the glass.

Bueckers drained a jump shot to make it 51-18 and later drove for another basket that gave the Huskies a 55-25 lead.

On Thursday, Bueckers was named Big East Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, achieving that sweep for only the second time in program history, following UConn great Maya Moore (2008).

On Saturday, after sparring with Bueckers on the sideline over going back into the game — Auriemma was in the midst of emptying his bench to prepare for the three-games-in-three-days format of the tournament — the coach was asked where Bueckers ranked talent-wise in his career.

"She's definitely in the top three pain-in-the-asses when it comes to playing time," he said. "She's got that record, too."

Unique Drake and Leilani Correa had seven points each for St. John's (8-15).

Of the Red Storm's 21 turnovers, 14 were UConn steals, including three by Evina Westbrook and two each from Aaliyah Edwards and Aubrey Griffin. Westbrook stole a St. John's inbounds pass in the third quarter and took it in for a layup and an eventual three-point play.

"Definitely, we wanted to get into our transition offense as much as possible and get our pace up and run teams like that from the beginning," Nelson-Ododa said. "We've been trying to play our games like that instead of just having to come in and rely on setting up our halfcourt offense and going through that.

"I think moving forward that's something that we're going to really have to just keep pushing and make it a very big priority for us."

UConn sophomore Anna Makurat made her return with 1 minute, 5 seconds to play in the first half. Makurat has not played since Jan. 21 at Tennessee, a span of 13 games, due to a lower leg injury.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

BIG EAST SEMIFINALS

No. 1 UConn vs. No. 5 Villanova

Location: Mohegan Sun Arena

Tip: 3 p.m. (FS1).

Records: Villanova 15-5 overall, UConn 22-1.

Last game: Villanova beat No. 4 DePaul in the Big East quarterfinals Saturday 78-72 (OT); UConn beat St. John's 77-41.

Probable starters: Villanova, 5-6 G Raven James (2.3 ppg, 4.0 apg), 6-0 F Brianna Herlihy (14.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg), 5-11 G Brooke Mullin (3.9 ppg), 6-1 F Maddy Siegrist (23.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg), 6-1 G/F Sarah Mortensen (11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg).

UConn, 5-11 G Paige Bueckers (19.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.1 apg, 2.3 spg), 5-10 G Nika Muhl (4.9 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.9 spg), 5-11 G Christyn Williams (15.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.5 apg), 6-5 F Olivia Nelson-Ododa (12.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.8 bpg), 6-0 G Evina Westbrook (9.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.3 apg).

Noteworthy: UConn played its first Big East tournament game Saturday since March 12, 2013, a 61-59 loss to Notre Dame before 9,085 fans at the XL Center. The Huskies spent the last seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference. "Well, it's good to be back in the Big East tournament," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said following a quarterfinal win over St. John's. "There's always been something special about it. There's a uniqueness about it. It's a shame that the fans aren't able to be a part of it (due to COVID-19) because that's usually a big, big part of the excitement of the Big East tournament. Being back certainly feels like it's a normal place to be even though it's not normal circumstances." ... Auriemma was unsure as to the degree which freshman starter Nika Muhl injured her left ankle against St. John's, but said that Muhl is "as tough as they come" and would play Sunday if at all possible. If not, he was pleased with some of the Huskies' contributions from the bench Saturday, including usual strong performances from Aaliyah Edwards (9 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals) and Aubrey Griffin (6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals). Anna Makurat returned after 13 games off due to injury and freshman Mir McLean added five points and three rebounds. "We have players that are capable of helping us," Auriemma said. "Sometimes it looks like 'Why don't you play them more?' And other times it looks like there's a big, huge dropoff between our first five and then some of our next group. Today was a good way to get their feet wet and hopefully tomorrow they'll add to that." ... Villanova, after knocking off three-time defending champion DePaul in overtime, is making its first trip to the Big East semifinals since 2015. Siegrist, a first team All-Big East selection, is just the third Big East player in history to claim the league's scoring (23.1) and rebounding (10.1) titles in the same season. She joins Louisville's Angel McCoughtry (2007-09) and Georgetown's Rebekkah Brunson (2004). ... UConn won at Villanova 92-50 on Dec. 22. UConn's home game against the Wildcats was canceled due to COVID-19.

— Vickie Fulkerson

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