STORRS, Conn. – UConn Huskies coach Geno Auriemma wasn’t too pleased with how his team played in the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s NCAA tournament first-round game versus Mercer.
Yes, UConn was up 43-23 at the half, but its offense left a lot to be desired and defensively it wasn’t totally imposing its will as Auriemma’s teams have historically been inclined to do. The Huskies flipped a switch after halftime, however, to run away with an 83-38 win. And they did it behind the phase of the game that’s been an underappreciated hallmark of the very best UConn teams: stifling defense.
UConn pitched a third-quarter shutout of the Mercer Bears (20-0) on its way to winning the program’s 28th consecutive NCAA tournament opener, a new Division I women’s basketball record, surpassing Tennessee’s stretch of 27 straight from 1982-2008.
It’s just the third time since the women’s game switched to quarters in 2016 that a team held an opponent scoreless in a frame of a NCAA tournament contest. Stanford did so Friday night in the first quarter against Montana State, and South Carolina also shut out Texas in the fourth quarter of their Elite Eight matchup last season.
In that third frame, the Huskies forced the Bears to go 0 for 12 from the floor and to turn the ball over six times. With UConn finally healthy and able to utilize its entire nine-person rotation, it was able to use full-court pressure more frequently and more aggressively with its expanded arsenal of personnel.
“I think just that full-court pressure, kind of being more aggressive,” graduate student Dorka Juhász said about what worked in the third quarter. “Even the first half we did full-court pressure, but I thought in the third quarter we were more locked in. Like it was sharper. We were able to get some steals, get some traps. So I think it was just a different kind of mindset. “
The Bears had done an admirable job of keeping things tight in the first half, never trailing by more than 21 and making UConn uncomfortable on offensive initially. But the 20-0 spurt gave UConn a 63-23 edge going into the fourth, knocking the wind out of Mercer and putting any potential comeback out of reach.
“The best teams that we’ve had over the years have been really hard to score against, really hard to run their offense against,” Auriemma said. “Because we put the kind of pressure we put on them by scoring, now it puts even more pressure on them to have to score and it just kind of accelerates the downslide.”
The Huskies’ defensive effort is spearheaded by sophomore guard Nika Mühl, who came off the bench Saturday after starting most of the season. Auriemma typically likes having her in to begin the game because he knows she’ll provide a defensive edge and toughness few players on his team offer.
Instead, he gave the nod to reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers, now six games back from knee surgery. The sophomore point guard played 25 minutes, the most she’s seen since returning from her December injury, and notched 12 points (5-7 shooting) to go along with five assists and four rebounds.
Once Mühl was inserted into the game late in the first, UConn seemed to automatically up its defensive intensity, forcing turnovers and turning them into points on the other end. The Bears managed just three points in Mühl’s first five minutes on the floor.
“For a young team I think it’s pretty unusual [to have buy-in on defense], “Auriemma said.” For as many young players as we have, they want to be that good defensively. I think Nika is a big deal in all that. I think when she’s not in the game our defense is not the same and you saw it today. The minute she enters the game, things change, and then people get caught up and now it’s contagious. “
In all, UConn ended with 23 fast break points and 23 points from turnovers, with Mercer committing 21 turnovers on the afternoon. UConn has now limited seven of its last nine opponents to 40 or fewer points. But the real test will be when the Huskies face some of the more high-powered offenses these next few weeks.
After all, Rhyne Howard and Kentucky could await in the Sweet 16, the multitalented NC State in the Elite Eight and even better offensive teams in Minneapolis.
“Every good team that’s going to be left standing in the NCAA tournament a couple of weeks from now is probably going to be a really, really good defensive team,” Auriemma said. “And if we want us to be that team, then it has to be as good as it was today and even better.”