The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
‘Happiness and excitement’
After arduous season, UConn opened NCAA tourney with joy
STORRS — The lead was 44 points and the crowd was still swaying with 2 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the NCAA Tournament first round game at Gampel Pavilion Saturday.
Inês Bettencourt, the freshman understudy for the UConn women’s basketball team, put an exclamation point on the joyous afternoon. As Vermont’s Paula Gonzalez drove to the basket off a UConn turnover, the 5-foot-9 Bettencourt extended her arm and swatted the shot.
The block drew an instant reaction from the bench. Dorka Juhász stood and placed her hand on her head with a wideeyed “What did I just see?” expression. There was a replay on the video board and the line of players watched and pointed and laughed.
After a trudge of a season defined by injuries and closerthan-expected game, of out-ofnowhere losses and emotional turmoil, this team needed levity and a classic UConn blowout.
They got that and more Saturday.
UConn (30-5) was coming off an 11-day break. Spring break was last week, so the players were on a relatively empty campus preparing for the next basketball chapter. Vermont had no chance.
“I mean, we missed playing,” Nika Mühl said after the 95-52 win. “We haven’t played in (almost) two weeks. Coach had an emphasis on us just going out there having fun. Of course, taking them seriously. Not taking them lightly. They’re a great team. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined . ... Throughout the whole year, we don’t take anyone lightly. That’s what Coach really talks about, especially now.”
Vermont (25-7) was the America East champion rewarded with a visit to its New England neighbor. The Catamounts left Connecticut just as Mercer, Towson, Saint Francis, Albany, Prairie View A&M, Idaho and others did in past years — limping out of the NCAA Tournament after a lopsided loss to the game’s most famous program.
Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey have coached this team to 29 consecutive first round victories. And more than the victories, it’s the manner in which the Huskies have approached these games. Auriemma said he prepared his team for Vermont as if he was gameplanning for Texas or Villano
va, taking nothing for granted against a team that simply can’t match up with a national power.
That’s what he does every March. This is when the momentum is ignited and the wheels start turning toward the Final Four and a national title run. That’s the rhythm of UConn in March.
“Coming off the Big East Tournament, we just kept that same mentality of ‘no let up’ kind of motto,” Aaliyah Edwards said. “We’re in March. Anything can happen. It’s one game and then you advance or you don’t. We kind of treated this as a do-or-die situation.”
Edwards, elbowing her way into the top-echelon of players in the country, was ridiculously good. She had a career-high 28 points, missing just two of her 15 shots. She had seven rebounds, five assists and four steals. She had 12 points in the first quarter, matching the entire Catamount team.
And she was the emotional catalyst. She converted a layup and was fouled, stumbling into the student section and dabbing a screaming fan.
Again, pure joy.
“It was a great moment,” Edwards said. “Even before the game they were cheering us on ... so to have that moment, it was just amazing.”
Edwards pumped her fist after celebrating with her fellow
UConn students. Her were grinning.
They smiled when Azzi Fudd stole the ball and started a fast break that included three passes and ended with Aubrey Griffin sinking a pair of free throws. Fudd, Mühl and Griffin brought a bit of pizzazz to the break and seemed to relish the show.
“Oh, it was a fun day,” Mühl said.
Later, Auriemma emptied his bench — no small feat after season marked by nights with few healthy bodies on that bench. This was just third team all season that all 10 available player stepped on the court in a game.
Bettencourt hit a 3-pointer and, of course, presented the crowd with the block that shook Gampel.
“I think we were like, we need to replay that and look that up on the big screen,” Edwards said. “So I think that we were all just happy for Nesh because she’s a hard worker and when she makes big plays like that, she doesn’t really take much credit for it, but we make it known that she did a good job.”
Bettencourt’s fellow freshman Ayanna Patterson scored her first NCAA Tournament points on a put-back in the fourth quarter, bringing the bench to its collective feet.
Patterson grinned as she ran back on defense. And it should be noted that Patterson dunked during the pregame layup line, drawing applause and hugs from teammates.
“There was just a lot of happiness and excitement,” said Fudd, who was in the starting lineup for the first time since early December.
Fudd returned for the Big East Tournament at Mohegan Sun, where UConn marched through three games by winning by an average of 23 points.That run positioned UConn for the phase of postseason and after a respite, the Huskies elevated
their play. With 10 players available for just the fifth time this season, UConn won its 30th game.
That’s 26 seasons with 30 or more wins.
“Absurd,” Auriemma said. “I would describe it as, hard to describe. I don’t have the words for it, even though I did it. I was here, I saw all of it and I still don’t know how I would describe it . ... We just feel like this what our program is supposed to do.
“You say, are you supposed to win 30 games 26 years ...whatever the number is, 26 out of 30. No, I don’t think you’re supposed to. But that’s kind of what you’re supposed to do. I say it all the time, if it was easy everybody else would do it.”