UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP)For nearly 30 years, when the calendar turns to March, Geno Auriemma has UConn ready to play its best on the biggest stage.
This season was one of the most challenging in recent memory for the Hall of Fame coach and his team. The Huskies lost consecutive games for the first time in three decades and suffered through injury after injury that left them with just seven healthy players some games.
Despite those setbacks, the end result was the same: another Big East Tournament title.
Aaliyah Edwards had 19 points and 15 rebounds to lead No. 7 UConn to its 10th consecutive conference tournament title with a 67-56 victory over 10th-ranked Villanova in the championship game Monday night.
“Well, we talked about it before the game that given everything we’ve been through. I think it gave us a little more resiliency, a little more strength. I think we got a little more tougher as the season went on. And it showed up these three days,” Auriemma said. “These kids know when it’s March time, they’ve been in a couple of Final Fours. I think there’s a different vibe in our team.”
Dorka Juhasz added 16 points and Lou Lopez Senechal scored 14 for the top-seeded Huskies (29-5), who earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. UConn has now won 21 Big East Tournament crowns, including the last three since re-entering the conference in 2020. The Huskies won all seven titles when they were in the American Athletic Conference.
Next up, the Huskies will try to extend their record run of reaching 14 consecutive Final Fours.
“We’re talented, but we’re disciplined and dedicated to win,” Edwards said. “It speaks to our standard and to what we are as a program and we’re a winning program. That’s what we did today.”
The Huskies celebrated by dumping confetti on each other and Auriemma even showed off his dance moves, doing “The Griddy” with his grandkids. It has been a rough year personally for Auriemma, as his mother died in December and he had to miss time with illness.
“So many things have happened on and off the court this past season personally, team-wise, everything, that to get to this point you want to close that book,” Auriemma said. “And now start a brand new one starting next Sunday. That book ended the right way. A lot of acts, lot of tragedies, ups and downs. The book ended the right way. Now it’s time for a new one.”
Trailing 22-21 in the second quarter, UConn turned up its defense and outscored Villanova (28-6) 13-2 over the final 6:09 of the half to go up 34-24 at the break. Edwards, the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, had 12 points, making all six of her shots, and nine rebounds in the opening 20 minutes.
The Huskies put away the game by scoring 22 of the first 29 points in the third quarter to extend the advantage to 25.
It has been a difficult year for the Huskies, who have dealt with a host of injuries starting with Paige Bueckers tearing her ACL over the summer. UConn has been getting healthier lately, with Azzi Fudd returning for the Big East Tournament after missing the previous 14 games with a knee injury.
Lopez Senechal and Edwards are the only UConn players to have been in every game this season.
The Huskies lost two conference games for the first time since 2012-13 and suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time since 1992-93.
But UConn has turned it on in March. Monday’s win was a rematch of last season’s championship game that UConn won 70-40. This one was more competitive for a half, just like the two regular-season meetings which the Huskies won by five and nine.
“I think we’re a team that’s always ready for March,” Lopez Senechal said. “I think even if we have a rough stretch, we knew how to overcome it, we knew how to play together. I think that’s why we’re here right now. I’m super proud of the whole team.”
Villanova was cold from the field at the start, making just 6-of-25 (24%) in the first quarter, including missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts. The Wildcats trailed 19-14 at the end of the first despite having 10 offensive rebounds. They finally hit a 3-pointer to open the second and went on an 8-2 run to take the brief lead. Then UConn took over.
Maddy Siegrist led the Wildcats, who moved up to 10th in the AP poll Monday for the school’s best ranking ever, with 22 points.
“She does it better than most scoring the ball,” Villanova coach Denise Dillon said. “Finding different ways to score. Sheer determination. She found spots and created a couple looks around the basket.”
QUEST FOR 1K
Siegrist has 984 points this season and is looking to become the fifth player to score over 1,000 in a season. The Big East Player of the Year would join Kelsey Plum (1,109), Jackie Stiles (1,062), Odyssey Sims (1,054) and Megan Gustafson (1,001). Siegrist led the nation in scoring (29.7 points) coming into Monday night’s game. She extended her streak to 34 consecutive games scoring 20-plus points. She’s one short of Plum’s record set in 2016-17.
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