SAN ANTONIO — The game was billed as a marquee matchup of uber-talented freshmen Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark. While those two didn’t disappoint, it was Christyn Williams and UConn’s other upperclassmen who stepped up and helped the Huskies advance.
Williams scored 27 points and Bueckers added 18 to lead No. 1 UConn to a 92-72 win over fifth-seeded Iowa on Saturday in the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
“The fact there was so much hype on those two kids. Part of it was unfair and comes with the territory,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Like I told the team before the game, in all these matchups, it comes (down) to somebody else. … Our defense as bad as it was at times, was really, really good when it had to be. Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook and Olivia (Nelson-Ododa), our three juniors were amazing, played the way you wanted your upperclassmen to play. It was not going to be easy on either Caitlin or Paige to play their normal game.”
Bueckers and Iowa’s Clark had taken the women’s basketball world by storm this season. Bueckers became the third freshman ever to earn All-America honors. Clark led the nation in scoring and came into the regional semifinals averaging 29 points in the tournament.
“I was super excited for this game, just because of the spotlight on it,” said Bueckers, who also had nine rebounds and eight assists. “And I know everybody hyped it up to be Caitlin versus Paige, but I was so excited for our team because I knew that people were going to come and notice and watch our whole team play.”
Evina Westbrook just missed the 18th triple-double in NCAA women’s tournament history, with 17 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds for UConn (27-1). Nelson-Ododa added 11 rebounds and seven assists along with four points. Freshman Aaliyah Edwards added 18 points.
“I kind of knew that they were going to be extra aggressive, especially on (Williams) and Paige, so that kind of makes it easier on the rest of us with them being a big focus,” Westbrook said.
Clark, shadowed on defense by Williams on almost every possession, finished with 21 points – below her nearly 27-points-per-game average. She was 7 for 21 from the field.
“I thought we played a great team basketball game,” Williams said. “I think we were working on all cylinders today. So, I don’t want to get all the credit, because this was a total team effort.”
The game marked the return of Auriemma, who missed the opening two rounds while recovering from the coronavirus. Auriemma arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday.
Associate head coach Chris Dailey, who guided the team through the opening two wins, moved back to her customary seat at his side where she’s been for their entire time at UConn.
Williams missed five of her first seven shots before getting going on offense. She made six straight in the second quarter, to give UConn a 49-35 halftime lead. The junior wing had 14 of her points in the period.
Iowa (20-10), behind Clark, was able to get within nine twice in the fourth quarter but Bueckers answered with a 3-pointer each time and Iowa could get no closer.
“This season was truly special, and I think for this team it’s only up from here. I know a lot of girls dream about going to all those blue bloods but I think playing for your home state is really something special and creating something is really special and that’s my goal here,” Clark said. “Obviously I still have three years left to do a lot of special things.”
UConn, which was playing in its 27th straight Sweet 16, faces Baylor – which beat Michigan 78-75 in overtime – on Monday night in the River Walk regional final.
For the first time in the tournament, the general public was allowed to attend the Alamodome. Each game was allowed to have 17% of capacity, which was around 4,800 fans. In the previous two rounds, teams were given six tickets per person in the travel party.
While Bueckers didn’t guard Clark much at all in the game, on Iowa’s last possession, she drew a charge on her friend and patted her on the butt as the two exchanged smiles when the Hawkeyes freshman helped her up.
“Obviously me and Caitlin are good friends, so just me taking that charge on her, yeah, we exchanged some words, I guess,” said a giggling and smiling Bueckers.
UConn had 30 assists on its 40 baskets, which led to the Huskies shooting nearly 55% (40 for 73) from the field.
UConn freshman guard Nika Muhl missed her second straight game while recovering from a sprained right ankle she injured in the opening round win over High Point. She was averaging 5.0 points, 2.7 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals.