ALBANY, N.Y.—Connecticut may have been known for its offense in the first two games of the NCAA tournament. But it was the Huskies' defense that pushed them past the Blue Devils into the Elite Eight and has made them the prohibitive national title favorites.
No. 5 seed Duke faced off against top-seeded Connecticut Saturday afternoon in the Sweet 16, and for the ninth meeting in a row, the Huskies defeated the Blue Devils 72-59, though this was the first time in that streak Duke came within 15 points. Connecticut had four players register double figures in scoring and finished with 10 fast-break points and 12 points off turnovers.
“We've handled a lot, a lot of adversity, and we've had some excellent leadership and playing our best basketball in a lot of ways at this time of year, which has been great,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “And you've got to credit some good defense by Connecticut. I'm really proud of our team, and I certainly hope Connecticut does well.”
The Blue Devils (24-9) kept pace for the first quarter, but Connecticut (35-0) put Duke away for good in the second quarter at the Times Union Center. The Blue Devils were led by sophomore Leaonna Odom’s team-high 22 points and eight rebounds.
The “Splash Sisters”—graduate students Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell—combined for 16 points in the final game of their careers. They were both face guarded on the offensive end for much of the game, which led to the Huskies' defensive success.
Senior Erin Mathias added seven points and eight rebounds to try to battle with Connecticut's frontcourt. Off the bench, graduate student Bego Faz Davalos made a basket and grabbed one rebound in her final game. Junior Faith Suggs started for the third straight game, though she was held scoreless.
The Blue Devils did not get out to the start they had hoped for. The Huskies (35-0) scored the first seven points of the contest, but a 3-pointer from Greenwell closed the deficit to four at 12-8 in favor of Connecticut.
“If we hold somebody to 14 points in a quarter, we think we did a pretty good job. Then we try to figure out, all right, what are we not doing on the offensive end that's causing us some problems,” Husky head coach Geno Auriemma said. “If you're not careful, you come down, and it's one pass and a shot. Well, that's great when they're going in. But sometimes you have to—you have to wait a little bit and move the defense a little bit, so if the shot doesn't go in, you have a chance to offensive rebound.”
Former Blue Devil and Connecticut transfer Azurá Stevens entered the game midway through the first quarter, and Mathias blocked her first shot. The 6-foot-6 forward converted her first bucket with less than two minutes remaining in the opening frame and finished with eight points and 12 rebounds.
The Huskies extended their six-point lead entering the second quarter to nine after Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie was assessed a technical foul 75 seconds into the second quarter. Connecticut picked up its man-to-man defense in the period and forced the Blue Devils to use all 30 seconds of the shot clock to get off a contested look on multiple possessions. When Duke could not keep possession of the ball, the Huskies were well on their way to the other end of the floor.
“We missed a lot of easy ones, some layups we missed, some wide-open shots we missed. I think their defense was solid, but it wasn't something that we couldn't handle,” Brown said. “I just think it was just us locking in offensively and knocking shots down, because I think we were getting enough stops, just needed to convert a little bit better.”
Gabby Williams took the ball away from Greenwell for an easy layup to extend the Huskies' 9-0 run, which put the Blue Devils behind by 14 midway through the second quarter. Two more 3-pointers from Connecticut’s Kia Nurse and Katie Lou Samuelson and a buzzer-beater from Gabby Williams left Connecticut doubling up Duke in the first half, as it closed the half on an 8-0 run and outscored the Blue Devils 20-6 in the second quarter.
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The Blue Devils did not quit after the break, as Greenwell drained a 3-pointer to bring the Blue Devils within 15 thanks to a 7-0 run. Duke cut the lead even further down to 13, but could not get over hump into single digits. The Huskies returned to their second-quarter form and scored the last seven points of the third period to regain a 20-point lead.
“[Connecticut is] a team that plays with terrific runs, and you look at their rebounding, second shots, they got into transition, and that spells the game pretty quickly there. They're in terrific shape, they can play forever, and yeah, I thought it was problematic for sure,” McCallie said. “We did settle down. I thought we did play, which was great. But that was for a quarter, and it needs to continue.”
The two teams traded triples in the opening minute of the final quarter, and Mathias converted an and-one to bring her team to within 16. Odom continued attacking and knocking down short jumpers in the paint to make the score respectable, though the Blue Devils never threatened to put themselves in a position to win.
Although it came in a loss, the Blue Devils only turned over the ball 10 times, which helped them stay close and could have given them a chance to win if a few more shots had fallen. Connecticut gave the ball away on 12 occasions. Brown—the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year—had seven steals, extending Duke's single-season record to 122 to finish the year.
“It was something we've been talking about all week, not turning the ball over, fueling their transition offense,” Brown said. “We had two in the second half total, so that's awesome for us, something that I wish we could have built on for future games, but I think that's something super positive to end the year on.”
Duke will return to Durham having played in its first regional since 2015. Connecticut will face second-seeded and reigning national champion South Carolina Monday night for a spot in the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.