CONNED: Duke women's basketball never leads, bows out of NCAA tournament with loss to UConn

Senior center Kennedy Brown lifts the ball over UConn's Aaliyah Edwards.
Senior center Kennedy Brown lifts the ball over UConn's Aaliyah Edwards.

PORTLAND, Ore.— At this point in the season, three basketball programs have teams remaining in both the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments. On Saturday evening in the Moda Center, two of those squads met: No. 3-seed UConn and No. 7-seed Duke, two perennial basketball powerhouses, each heading out west hoping to keep on their journey through March Madness. 

Ultimately, it was the Huskies who will continue dancing, barely fighting off a late comeback attempt to escape with a 53-45 win in a defensive battle that will give UConn the opportunity to take on No. 1-seed Southern California in the Elite Eight. 

“We were out of sorts and out of rhythm on the offensive end and just weren't able to until late, get enough points on the board,” said head coach Kara Lawson after the loss. 

The resolve of Duke visibly began to wane as the third quarter went on and the first-half deficit did not shrink. Senior center Kennedy Brown picked up her third foul with more than four minutes left in the period, and the offense once again looked lost. The sets were slow and it seemed like the only shots were contested jumpers with the shot clock winding down. Even as UConn center Aaliyah Edwards picked up her fourth foul just over halfway through the period and checked out, Paige Bueckers continued to dominate. She went 4-for-5 from the field in the third quarter, scoring seemingly at will from anywhere past halfcourt. 

There was a little more life from the Blue Devils at the end of the period, stringing together a few buckets to cut the deficit to 15, but morale was visibly low as frustrations rose. Taina Mair missed an easy pass to open the final quarter and put her head in her hands. Even with a push in the final five minutes to close the lead to as little as five points, it just was not enough.

“I think we did a poor job,” Lawson said. “Whether it was converting in transition, we got lots of one-on-ones and three-on-ones that we fumbled and did not finish, and those are the ones that are valuable to convert.”

It was, unsurprisingly, Bueckers who got the scoring going, dropping one in from midrange. From there, however, it was defense that set the tone early. The Blue Devils, despite being unable to find much of the rim, also managed to keep UConn off the scoreboard. After more than four minutes of play, the two teams had combined for just three total buckets.

Finally, it was the Huskies who managed to open the game up early. A quick run put them up 10-4, as Edwards caused problems both down low and in the midrange for the Duke defense. Edwards and Bueckers had eight of UConn’s first 10 points. The Huskies, known for playing their starters nearly the entire game, would require more big-time minutes from their star duo. At the end of the first quarter, Duke’s defense-heavy approach to the game had prevailed as the Blue Devils trailed 10-6. 

While the defense was as strong as ever, the Duke offense floundered. The Blue Devils turned the ball over 13 times in the first half of play, as sloppy plays and violations abounded. 

“Defensively, we played well enough to win,” Lawson said.

Shot-making was also uninspiring at best. Duke went 5-for-24 from the field in the first half, scoring just 13 points. While the defense was keeping the squad from Durham in the game, the scoring would have to improve to pull the Blue Devils back to within true striking distance.

Finally, more than halfway through the second period, Duke scored its first bucket of the quarter off a jump shot from freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa. The only other made field goal of the period came from sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson. Playing what can only be described as some of the most morbidly fascinating basketball that has been seen thus far in the tournament, Duke trailed 23-13 at the half. Edwards led both teams in scoring with 10 points at an impressive 5-for-6 clip from the field. 

Despite the rough first half, Duke came out of the gate in the second with a little bit more fight. Junior guard Reigan Richardson continued what has been a strong tournament so far with a midrange bucket, and Brown took advantage of Edwards’ three fouls to attack the glass. On the other end, Bueckers got hot early. She sunk a pair of shots from beyond the arc, and the Huskies quickly expanded their lead to 14. 

With just two players — Brown and graduate center Camilla Emsbo — at the end of their eligibility, nearly the entire team will have the opportunity to return. Until the new campaign comes, however, it will be time to regroup and recover. 

“These last few years have been really special for me. Obviously the people the most,” said Brown on what she would miss as her college career comes to an end. “Getting to come in every day and work to get better, to teach and learn has been really special for me this year. I think especially this group is a really special group and I'm excited for the future to watch them grow and continue to be their number-one fans.” 


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