Bridgeport, CT-The energy in the Total Mortgage Arena was electric. The #2 seed Big East champions UConn Huskies were ready to take on the #3 seed Big Ten champions Indiana Hoosiers in a hometown showdown on Saturday. From the moment the 11-time National Champs walked out the locker room, the crowd went into a frenzy.
It is the first time these two powerhouse teams met in the Sweet Sixteen tournament, both eager for the win, facing adversities along the way and beating the odds for a shot at the Elite Eight. For the Huskies, it’s a spotlight all too familiar as this year marks their 33rd straight NCAA tournament appearance. Though they were plagued by a number of ailments this season with eight of their players missing at least two games due to injuries forcing them to utilize 11 different starting line-ups, they’re now feeling the pressure to uphold their dynasty.
With the Hoosiers, this is their second-straight debut at the NCAA Regional since their 1998 dry spell and a bittersweet one for their star guard Ali Patberg’s career nearing to a close. She entered the postseason with an all-time record of 90-35 surpassing former teammate Keyanna Warthen’s 88 as the program’s all-time most winningest player in the win over Charlotte. Her fellow seniors Grace Berger and Aleksa Gulbe share her record breaking win starting their trio bond at Indiana the 2018-19 season, this one bidding them farewell.
The Hoosiers came out blazing from the start scoring 4 points in the first 8:43 minutes of the game. Paige Bueckers was the team’s first foul but Olivia Nelson-Ododa finally got UConn on the board as they trailed by 2. Indiana’s four of its starters were sizzling hot early on in the first half.
Ali Patberg, Nicole Cardano-Hillary, Mackenzie Holmes and Aleska Gulbe each had 4 points piece, Grace Berger chipped in 2 bringing the team total to 18. On the other side, Bueckers hit a pull-up jumper followed by Aaliyah Edwards’s jump shot to keep the game interesting. Christyn Williams chimed in with a layup and Azzi Fudd drained two jumpers giving them a 21-18 lead in the 1st quarter.
Indiana were relentless in the first half, they had a few turnovers but stayed in striking distance of the Huskies, they worked hard defensively on the perimeter and closed the lanes in the paint. Because of that, the Huskies had a very difficult time shooting over the Hoosiers’ 2-3 zone and missed a lot of shots in that half.
The Hoosiers didn’t let their foot off the gas the entire 1st half. Ali Patberg kept the momentum going hitting jump shots and keeping her team mates fired up scoring 12 all over the hardwood. Things started to simmer down midway in the 2nd quarter. The Huskies woke up with Caroline Ducharme tossing in layup to regain the lead by 2 and Evina Westbrook followed suit on a fast break turnover.
Christyn Williams set the tempo off a steal and it was off to the races with Nika Muhl and Azzi Fudd having a 3 party bringing down the house at the total Mortgage Arena. It bought the sold-out crowd to their feet.
“So we’ve come a long way. You know, we’ve improved in every area because of what we had to endure”, said coach Geno Auriemma during last night’s news conference. “Normally we’re rolling in here having beaten everybody by 40 and you know, we think we’re invincible. Well, we certainly don’t think that now and that’s probably good thing, you know, because of the way it’s played out all year long. So I think we, we have a little more resolve than maybe we had two months ago”.
The 1st half ended with Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes hitting a buzzer beater from the top of the key. Bueckers tried to get her groove back after falling and it looked like she reinjured her surgical repaired knee but she just shook it off. Geno must’ve hit the replay button off last night’s conference game during halftime because the Huskies reset in the 2nd half.
It was all systems go with Bueckers taking it to the hole off a steal igniting her squad. Nelson-Ododa and Fudd made needed buckets leaving the Hoosiers confused and missing a lot of open shots with 7:39 in the 3rd, upping UConn’s lead to 13 points (46-33).
The Huskies made adjustments in the second half, they started to closed down the paint. Indiana had a difficult time hitting shots on the perimeter. Ultimately, they just weren’t able to get their mojo back and the Huskies capitalized on their shooting woes with Nelson-Ododa and Westbrook leading their team with assists on the other end.
Berger tried to help bring Indiana back but it was too late. Williams drove the into the lane and passed to Edwards with 2:08 left in the game and sealing the deal with a floater closing the game for a UConn 75-58 victory.
Coach Teri Moren shared some key sentiments with an emotional Ali Patberg and Mackenzie Holmes during Indiana’s postgame press conference.
“Well, first of all, congratulations to a very good UConn team. We felt like we got off to a fast start and a really good start. But nonetheless, I’m really proud of our group. We’ve had a tremendous season, have had some adversity that we’ve had to overcome, and as I said to these guys, they just continue to show up every day and do the work for us.”
A visibly saddened Ali Patberg added, “I’m disappointed we lost. I’m not a good loser. So this is not how I envisioned going out. But I’m thankful Coach Moran believed in five years ago and gave me an opportunity to wear Hoosier on my chest”.
Mackenzie Holmes closed the post media conference with:
“I don’t think I could even put that into words, and I told Ali I’m not ready to have her not be my teammate anymore. This team is filled with 11 selfless girls who with just put each other before themselves”.
Truly, an memorable introductory match-up of two outstanding teams that hustled, worked hard, and stayed resilient. But Indiana just came up a little short.
Next up: UConn vs NC State Monday night at Bridgeport, CT