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Defense lifts No. 1 UConn to Big East title over Marquette

Mohegan — The offense in the form of Paige Bueckers' team-high 23 points and the defense, Christyn Williams' stranglehold on Marquette leading scorer Selena Lott, were among the highlights Monday night as the top-seeded UConn women's basketball team won its 19th Big East Conference tournament championship.

One of the things UConn coach Geno Auriemma will always remember about the title, however, in this season threatened by a pandemic, was the joy exhibited by his players following the 73-39 victory over No. 2 Marquette.

The UConn players, including the Huskies' seven freshmen, made snow angels in the confetti which fell from the rafters at Mohegan Sun Arena and they doused Bueckers with water while she was still on the air giving a postgame television interview with FS1.

"We won a lot of these. I don't know how many," Auriemma said. "I don't remember quite a spontaneous and joyful celebration like these kids had. It's great to be young. These kids have come in and really they've reinvigorated everyone associated with our program. They're just really unique kids and I'm really happy for them.

"My life doesn't change that much winning another championship. But my life was changed tonight because I got a chance to see the way that they celebrated. That was worth waiting six months for."

Bueckers, a freshman guard and a national player of the year candidate, finished with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists against Marquette to earn Most Outstanding Player honors.

Williams, a junior, had 16 points and guarded Marquette's Selena Lott — who scored 27 the night before in the Golden Eagles' semifinal victory over Creighton — to join Bueckers on the All-Tournament Team. Lott had just two points on 1-for-5 shooting.

UConn's Olivia Nelson-Ododa was also named to the All-Tournament Team, finishing with five points, seven rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots. Nika Muhl had 11 points and fellow freshman Aaliyah Edwards led the team with eight rebounds.

It was the eighth straight league tournament title for UConn (24-1), including from 2014-20 in the American Athletic Conference, and 26th overall. It marked the Huskies' first Big East tournament appearance since 2013 and their first Big East tournament title since 2012 when they toppled Notre Dame 63-54.

UConn defeated Marquette in its regular-season finale March 1 at Gampel Pavilion, outlasting the Golden Eagles in a slugfest, 63-53. The frontcourt tandem of Nelson-Ododa (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Edwards (16 points, 8 rebounds) lifted the Huskies to that victory.

This time, UConn led Marquette 41-23 at halftime, behind 13 points from Bueckers.

At one point the Huskies led 27-6, putting together a 13-0 run over 1:52 in which Bueckers, Muhl and Evina Westbrook each connected for 3-pointers, Williams ran a fast break while dribbling behind her back and Edwards stole a Marquette pass and took it the length of the floor for a layup.

Westbrook's 3 capped the run and prompted a Marquette timeout, at which juncture the Huskies were shooting 78.6% (11-for-14), 83.3% from 3-point range (5-for-6).

In the third quarter, Auriemma stood on the sidelines directing his defense at one point, moving Williams to just the right location at the right time to get a steal.

Auriemma was then Williams' biggest cheerleader as she turned the steal into a layup at the other end of the floor, as the Huskies, with a commanding defensive performance for the third night in a row, cruised to the victory.

"I mean, coach is always on me about defense," said Williams, who guarded the opponents' best player throughout the tournament. "And it's March, you know? It's tournament time; it's do or die right now. I think that's what won the game for us tonight is our defense. I feel like we got better each game and that says a lot because our defense was great each game. ... I've been just taking those matchups personal. I don't want them to score 27 on me."

"As much as Paige was MVP, I thought Christyn could just as easily have been as well," Auriemma said.

UConn swept through the tournament by beating No. 8 St. John's 77-41 in the quarterfinals and No. 5 Villanova 84-39 in the semifinals before taking on Marquette. The Huskies have now won 160 straight conference games.

Bueckers had 17 points and three assists against St. John's and 18 points and eight assists against Villanova.

"I think we're just playing really good basketball right now," Bueckers said. "Ever since we lost (to Arkansas, Jan. 28, 90-87) we've tried to focus and really hone in on (defense). Our sense of urgency is just really high right now."

What was the celebration like, according to Bueckers?

"It was fun. It was really fun. That's just kind of the team we are," she said. "We're all about having fun. You see it on the court, as well, but off the court it's a whole different level. I think we threw confetti on every single one of the people on our team, staff included."

UConn, ranked first in the nation, will find out its first-round NCAA tournament opponent on Selection Monday, March 15. The entire NCAA tournament will be held in the San Antonio area as a precautionary measure against COVID-19.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

BIG EAST ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM

Most Outstanding Player: Paige Bueckers (UConn)

Olivia Nelson-Ododa (UConn)

Christyn Williams (UConn)

Temi Carda (Creighton)

Lauren Van Kleunen (Marquette)

Maddy Siegrist (Villanova)

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