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UConn rolls into Big East women's tourney final

Mohegan — UConn coach Geno Auriemma has underscored several times recently that "everyone has to be who they are" and that Christyn Williams, a junior for the Huskies who rang up more than 3,000 points as a high school player, is a scorer.

"She should act like one and talk like one and walk like one," Auriemma said of Williams. "Every time she steps on the court, she should be ready to score."

Williams did all that and more Sunday for No. 1-ranked and top-seeded UConn in an 84-39 victory over No. 5 Villanova in the Big East tournament semifinals at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Williams scored 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting to lead the Huskies (23-1) to Monday's Big East championship game against No. 2 Marquette (8 p.m., FS1) and Williams also played a big role in what Auriemma described as the second straight night in which UConn's defense was practically mistake-free.

Williams had the task of guarding Villanova's Maddy Siegrist, a 6-foot-1 forward who won the Big East's scoring (23.1) and rebounding (10.1) titles this year. Siegrist had three points against UConn on 1-for-10 shooting.

UConn outscored Villanova 20-3 in the second quarter, nearly holding the Wildcats scoreless, and led 45-13 at halftime. Villanova finished the game shooting 6-for-33 from 3-point range (18.2%).

"A really, really good Villanova team, you know," Auriemma said. "We made it difficult for them to get the shots they want. I watched them play (Saturday, an overtime victory over three-time defending champion DePaul) and they were absolutely great. They were great, Maddy Siegrist was great. Just an unbelievable performance.

"So we knew coming in it was going to be a tough matchup for whoever was guarding her. We just did an amazing, amazing job. That's all I can say."

Freshman Paige Bueckers added 18 points and eight assists for UConn and Olivia Nelson-Ododa had 13 points and seven rebounds.

Freshman Nika Muhl, whom Auriemma dubbed "as tough as they come" on Saturday when she injured her left ankle and wound up the day on crutches, returned to the starting lineup against Villanova. She played a conservative 17 minutes, with Auriemma electing to give her some extra rest in anticipation of needing her more for the championship game.

Sarah Mortensen finished with 15 points for Villanova (15-6).

UConn won seven straight American Athletic Conference tournament titles before rejoining the Big East this season. The Huskies will be looking for their first Big East tournament title since 2012.

This will be UConn's 17th straight trip to the league championship game, last falling short in 2004 after losing to Boston College in the Big East semifinals.

Marquette won Sunday's other semifinal 64-59 over No. 6 Creighton.

UConn led 25-10 after one quarter, at which point Villanova stopped scoring.

The Huskies scored the final two points of the first quarter on two free throws by Bueckers and then 17 straight in the second quarter for a 19-0 run and a 42-10 lead.

Villanova's Brianna Herlihy finally ended the drought with a 3-pointer with 1:18 to play in the half, but Bueckers responded with a three-point play with .8 seconds remaining and UConn led 45-13.

Williams had 14 points in the first half and Bueckers 13 points and five assists.

"For two nights in a row now, we said, 'Here's the game plan. This is what we're going to do and here's how we're going to do it,'" Auriemma said. "Jamelle (Elliott, assistant coach) last night and Shea (Ralph, assistant coach) tonight put together two great game plans. ... It worked as well as you can possibly hope that it will work.

"I think today was the culmination of (Williams) being great defensively on a really tough assignment and just letting the natural part of who she is happen on the offensive end. We're a championship team if Christyn Williams plays like that."

Williams called it a team effort in guarding Siegrist, a fellow Big East first team all-star.

Williams used her defensive focus to snap out of a mini-slump this season, scoring in single figures in back-to-back games against South Carolina and Seton Hall, and has continued to excel on both ends of the floor, oftentimes drawing the opposing team's leading scorer.

"I'd say that's just been my kind of focus going into the game rather than offense and I feel like that's helped me, just being aggressive and attacking, whether it's defense or offense," Williams said. "They've been putting me on their best guards so I've definitely tried to take advantage of that just to get better each game."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

No. 1 UConn vs. No. 2 Marquette

Big East Championship

Location: Mohegan Sun Arena

Tip: 8 p.m. (FS1).

Records: Marquette 19-5 overall, UConn 23-1.

Last game: Marquette beat No. 6 Creighton in the Big East semifinals Sunday 64-59; UConn beat No. 5 Villanova in the Big East semifinals Sunday 84-39.

Probable starters: Marquette, 6-2 F Camryn Taylor (11.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg), 5-11 G Jordan King (9.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.1 apg), 5-11 G Selena Lott (15.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.0 spg), 6-1 F Chloe Marotta (7.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.7 apg), 6-2 F Lauren Van Kleunen (13.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

UConn, 5-11 G Paige Bueckers (19.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.2 apg, 2.3 spg), 5-10 G Nika Muhl (4.9 ppg, 3.0 apg, 1.8 spg), 5-11 G Christyn Williams (15.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.4 apg), 6-5 F Olivia Nelson-Ododa (12.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.7 bpg), 6-0 G Evina Westbrook (9.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 spg).

Noteworthy: UConn, in essence, won before the game even started Sunday when freshman guard Nika Muhl bounced back from an injury to her left ankle which left her walking with crutches following Saturday's game. UConn tweeted a video of Muhl in uniform and smiling at Sunday morning's shootaround and Muhl followed by starting her 12th straight game for the Huskies. "When we left here (Saturday), obviously we weren't sure the extent of what happened," Auriemma said. "But overnight she did everything she was asked to do. Our athletic training staff, Janelle (Francisco), did a great job with her and she was able to come to shootaround this morning and looked good. ... She's a tough kid. I'm sure it hurt and she played through it anyway." ... UConn last played Marquette in the team's regular-season finale last Monday. UConn won 63-53 in what Auriemma termed a "slog," getting 40 of its points in the paint. Olivia Nelson-Ododa had 19 points and 10 rebounds and freshman Aaliyah Edwards 16 points and eight rebounds. Auriemma, although UConn has played two much more uptempo games since then, said he would expect no less of a fight from the Golden Eagles in Monday's matchup. "This is March and the games are supposed to be difficult," Auriemma said. "They're supposed to be knock-down, drag-out affairs and you have to be willing to grind it out if that's what it takes. ... If it turns out to be something other than that, fine, but that's not our expectation." ... Marquette's Selena Lott was the Big East's Co-Defensive Player of the Year along with UConn's Nelson-Ododa and Lott was also named a first team all-star. Redshirt senior Lauren Van Kleunen was named to the second team and was the league's Sportsmanship Award winner.

— Vickie Fulkerson

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