XL Center—-The basketball gods got to be smiling down on the UConn Huskies. No one thought after losing Paige Bueckers with a knee injury on Dec. 5, 2021, against Notre Dame and Azzi Fudd playing sparingly in eight games that this young team would bounce back and be competitive.
To add to their depth issues, forty-five minutes before tip-off against the No. 7 Tennessee Vols, the Huskies announced Caroline Ducharme was going to sit out this game.
With Bueckers and Durcharme on the bench, the No. 10 ranked Huskies’ found a way to beat the Lady Vols 75-56 before an announced crowd of 13,719 at the XL Center. It was a statement win that UConn desperately needed to get back their old mojo.
“To win the way we did with not all the pieces functioning like you would like, we could be good in March,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We could be a good team in March.”
Freshman guard Azzi Fudd, in her fourth game since returning from a injury, led the Huskies with a career-high 25 points (7 of 9 on 3-pointers) along with four assists and four boards. Evina Westbrook and Aaliyah Edwards chipped in 14 points each. Edwards was a monster on the glass–with seven rebounds, including six on defense. UConn shot a season-high 46.2 percentage from downtown, while limiting Tennessee to a season-low 28.8 percent field goal shooting on the hardwood.
The Huskies improved to 16-9 all-time against its rival, including 3-0 in the current series. The loss was Tennessee’s second to a nonconference foe this season.
“You pick up a stat sheet and you’re shooting 28 percent from the field, it’s not going to keep you in the game with Connecticut,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “You can’t have mental lapses against a player like Fudd. They do such a great job within their offense of finding her. They’re such great passers so if you do have a breakdown they capitalize on it.”
The Huskies won the tip and Fudd drained a three-pointer from the top of the key on their first possession, but after that bucket, both teams struggled to score for over two minutes. Tamari Key got UT on the board with a easy layup at the 7:23 mark. Forward Sara Puckett hit a trey seconds later to give the Lady Vols their first lead of the game at 5-3. The teams traded baskets until back-to-back jumpers by Edwards reclaimed the lead for UConn, making the score 9-7 by the first media break.
Rae Burrell hit a turnaround jumper following the timeout to knot the game up at nine, but the Huskies closed out the period with two treys while holding Tennessee to a made free throw for a 15-10 lead at the end of the first.
The four-point margin would hold until Fudd hit a three and Edwards followed it up with a layup to make the score 26-17 with 4:34 left in the half. Burrell put in a pair of free throws before Jordan Horston and Westbrook took over for the last four minutes, scoring six points each for their respective teams for a halftime score of 32-25.
In the second half, the Huskies started it off with a 14-0 run engineered by Christyn Williams and Nika Muhl to lead 46-25 at the 6:19 mark. Horston, who struggled in the half, scored UT’s first points of the half from the free-throw line with four minutes into the quarter. Fudd and Edwards followed that up with six straight points before Puckett hit her second three of the contest with 3:19 left in the third, sparking an 8-2 run which got UT within 19 points by the end of the quarter at 55-36.
Key scored on the blocks early in the fourth quarter to trim the lead to 17, the Lady Vols got within 13 points (59-46) with 5:45 left in the game. Edwards hit a three for the Huskies, the first of four threes the Huskies drained in the closing minutes. Back-to-back baskets by Horston got UT within 15 at the 3:42 mark, but a 10-0 run by the Huskies closed the last few minutes of the game out in Hartford.
“Today, I think was the first game where she took it upon herself to be present the entire game. We looked for her more. We ran more stuff for her and she didn’t pass up any shots,” Auriemma said. “If you would have watched the game, you would have thought she was an upperclassman playing out there, that she was a senior.”
UConn’s win helps build a solid case to be a higher seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament. On Jan. 27, the team was projected to be a No.3 seed in the the first Top 16 reveal. If the Huskies can finish the regular season strong, they will likely to move up in the rankings, get a higher seed and get placed in a regional that’s a bit closer to the East Coast than Spokane, Wash. (where the Huskies were projected to play in the Jan. 27 reveal).
“It’s going to be really scary and definitely scary for our opponents because we’re gonna be a nasty team with everyone healthy,” Fudd said.
Jordan Horston Comes Up Big: Horston had a game-high 26 points and eight boards against No. 10/9 UConn for her sixth performance of 20+ points this season and third in the last four games. Against opponents ranked in the Top 25, she is averaging 20.7 ppg., 10.7 rpg., and 4.0 apg.
MAKING FREE THROWS COUNT: Tennessee went 19-of-21 from the charity stripe line for a season-best 90.5 percent free throw shooting percentage. UT’s previous best performance from the charity stripe was 83.3 percent against Kentucky on Jan. 16.
The Huskies will resume Big East play Wednesday by hosting Villanova at 7 p.m. at the XL Center.
The Lady Vols return home for a 6:30 p.m. ET match-up against Missouri on Thursday. The game will be televised on SEC Network.