Way back in November when Connecticut won back-to-back games against NET top-25 teams — two of their 11 the coach felt would have resulted in a 1-seed for anyone else — Geno Auriemma laid bare the crux of the Huskies’ fate.
It wasn’t Azzi Fudd, the star sophomore bearing more of the scoring load. It wasn’t health, which the Huskies battled through and never let sink them.
“It’s really fair or unfair to say,” Auriemma said after the impressive 91-69 win over NC State five months ago. “But our post players are going to decide the fate of our season.”
He challenged 6-foot-5 fifth-year forward Dorka Juhász and 6-3 junior Aaliyah Edwards to take control of the team and provide consistency for when shots aren’t falling. It was evident on Saturday, even though plenty of shots were falling, in UConn’s 95-52 win against No. 15 Vermont during the first round of the NCAA tournament held in Storrs, Connecticut.
Their improved play, which Auriemma called amazing on Saturday, has been crucial for UConn to weather its storm of injuries and it was on display in the Huskies’ first step to a 15th consecutive Final Four.
Edwards, whose ascension has been key, paced them with a stacked line of 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks. She had as many points in the first quarter as Vermont as a team (12) and was a perfect 8-of-8 at half, and remained 10-of-10 by the first media timeout of the second half. A few came in the mid range, including a beauty of a pass from Fudd driving into the paint.
“When she’s making that mid-range jump shot, it just changes how our team has to be defended,” Auriemma said. “So it’s one of the better games. I thought that first half that she played, I thought was one of the better halves of basketball that I’ve seen her play since she’s been at Connecticut.”
By game’s end, she had missed only 2-of-15 attempts for her season-high point total. She is the first player since 2000 to have at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting at least 85%.
“We couldn’t match her athleticism, strength, explosion,” Vermont head coach Alisa Kresge said. “We didn’t have an answer for her. The game plan was to try to double her some, but she’s ready for stuff like that. I thought she did a great job getting us really deep in the paint, and then when we kind of played off her from the perimeter, she hit a couple perimeter shots.”
Edwards, a Canadian national team pool player, was a non-factor in UConn’s run to the 2022 title game. She scored a high of 10 points in the regional final overtime victory against NC State, a total she couldn’t match against more strength in the semifinal against Stanford (9) or final against South Carolina (8 points, two rebounds, two assists in 37 minutes).
In the matchup against the Wolfpack in this season’s second game, she had a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double on 8-of-13 shooting. She’s doubled her game averages as a junior to 16.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 blocks per game to earn third-team All-American honors. Her 58.3% shooting clip paces the team as does her scoring output.
It hasn’t been a one-post success story. Juhász came off the bench in the last NCAA tournament, her first after transferring from Ohio State, and had 10 points in the first round. She scored only five in the three games following and was unable to play in the Final Four after injuring her wrist.
This season in a regular starting role, she also doubled her averages to 14.3 points, 10 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks a game. Her 50% field-goal percentage is the best of her career. She scored 15 points, second to Edwards, in the Vermont win on 7-of-10 shooting with 10 rebounds (all defensive), six assists, three steals and three blocks.
“She’s very humble off the court, but once you get on the court, she’s fierce, and I don’t think that anyone should take that lightly,” Edwards said. “She’s a force inside and outside. I think that as a team we love that about her because she’s unpredictable in that way because she can capitalize down low, but also on the perimeter, she can knock in that 3 that everyone knows that she can.”
Caroline Ducharme came off the bench to go 4-of-4, including two 3-pointers, for 12 points. All 10 players notched minutes, a note unlikely even a few weeks ago when it started the Big East quarterfinal with them all available for only the second time this season. Paige Bueckers and freshman Ice Brady are out for the season with injuries.
Edwards is one of only two UConn players to play in every game as injuries hit the roster hard. The other is guard Lou Lopez Sénéchal, a Fairfield transfer who has brought the shooting touch UConn needed in Fudd’s absence. She exited early in the second half and did not return. Sénéchal said she hyperextended her leg a little and Auriemma didn’t want to take any chances.
Having a healthy 10 will only help Edwards and Juhász more. UConn’s wings are a larger threat that will pull defenders off of the two. They’ll face fewer double- and triple-teams, giving them more room to work and upping the transition pace from the “real slog” it had been.
“We couldn’t do as much defensively, and we couldn’t do as much offensively,” Auriemma said. “Now you see the difference and the results are what they are. I’m just glad it’s happening. It only took five months.”
UConn was 61.9% from the floor collectively and 6-of-18 from 3-point range. Fudd was 2-of-10 overall, 1-of-8 from 3-point range, for five points with four rebounds.
They dominated the boards, 43-19, and assisted on 27 of their 39 shots. Defensively, they allowed 11 3s to Vermont, but held them to 33.3% shooting overall.
It was a nice warmup to the second round where they’ll face No. 7 Baylor (9 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN). A win and it’s out to Seattle where they’ll play in the Pacific time zone during the tournament for the first time since 2007.
That was also the last time they missed the Final Four, but the bigs know the fate rests more on them than a stat in game notes.