Once Paige Bueckers and UConn got rolling, Syracuse couldn’t stop them and now the Huskies are heading back to a familiar place — the Sweet 16.
Bueckers scored 16 of her 20 points in the first half and Aaliyah Edwards added 19 to help No. 1 seed UConn beat eighth-seeded Syracuse 83-47 on Tuesday night and advance to the regional semifinals of the women’s NCAA Tournament for the 27th straight season.
“It’s funny I can still remember the very first one we went to. The Husky dog was carrying the suitcase,” UConn coach Chris Dailey said. “It says everything about our players and type of players we have.”
The Huskies were missing coach Geno Auriemma for the second straight game, who is recovering from COVID-19. Dailey filled in for the Hall of Fame coach, who celebrated his 67th birthday on Tuesday and should rejoin the team Wednesday.
“Happy birthday Coach, if you’re watching. Get your butt here tomorrow,” Bueckers said. “We’re excited to see you.”
The UConn players sang “Happy Birthday” to Auriemma earlier Tuesday in a video posted on Twitter. They also gave him a present by again showing how well they could play without him.
The Huskies (26-1) got off to a slow start, a bit flummoxed by Syracuse’s zone defense.
With the game tied 8-8, Christyn Williams banked in a deep 3-pointer as the shot clock expired and then Bueckers scored off a steal to give the Huskies a five-point lead. They led 19-14 after one quarter and slowly pulled away from the Orange (15-9) to a 15-point halftime lead.
“We had better ball movement and people movement,” Dailey said. “The first couple of minutes were were a little rushed. Against their zone you have to move and make it difficult to find us. Once we got movement, we started to click and our defense was tremendous. I can’t say enough about our defense.”.
In the second half, the Huskies tore the zone apart with precision passing that led to easy layups. While Bueckers wasn’t scoring as much in the second half only taking two shots, she was passing the ball. She had a nifty no-look pass for a layup and foul, pumping her fist in celebration.
“We were pounding the ball in the paint. I feel like the perimeter didn’t really need to do much,” Bueckers said. “We had Aaliyah and Liv and Aubrey and everybody who stepped in in the paint. They did their thing. So my job was to get the ball to them and get the ball inside and to the gaps in the zone. And I didn’t feel the need to shoot, just because we were getting easy layups in transition and just in the half-court set in the zone.”
The Huskies led 64-35 after three quarters and cruised into the Sweet 16.
Syracuse was led by its own talented freshman in 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso. She had 12 points and seven rebounds.
The loss ended the stellar career of Syracuse guard Tiana Mangakahia, who returned from breast cancer this season. She finished as the Orange’s all-time assist leader and one of the best players in school history.
She finished the game with seven points.
“Tough kid, she didn’t quit,” an emotional Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “She came back and gave everything she had. Tough to see a kid not able to compete at the level she can be at. … She’s like my daughter. Lots of days she didn’t feel good, but she played. Toughest kid I ever coached.”
UConn freshman Nika Muhl missed the game after spraining her right ankle in the opening-round win over High Point. She was in a walking boot.
“I don’t have an update on Nika,” Dailey said. “I was hopeful and if there was any way she could play she was going to. I’m hoping a day off tomorrow will help. I’m just hopeful.”
This was the 52nd meeting between the schools. The former Big East foes have also played each other in three of the past five NCAA Tournaments. The Huskies ended the Orange’s season in 2016, 2017 and now 2021. The 2016 matchup was for the national championship. The Huskies hold a 40-12 lead in the series with Syracuse’s last win coming in 1996.