UConn women’s basketball beats Syracuse 72-64 to reach 30th consecutive Sweet Sixteen in March Madness

STORRS — For the 30th consecutive season under coach Geno Auriemma, UConn women’s basketball is headed back to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

The 3-seed Huskies (31-5) secured their trip to the Portland 3 regional with a 72-64 victory over 6-seed Syracuse (25-8) in their final game at Gampel Pavilion this season. UConn advances to face 7-seed Duke, which upset 2-seed Ohio State in a second-round matchup Sunday.

UConn women beat Syracuse in March Madness to reach Sweet 16

Defense fueled the Huskies’ win, especially the effort from the guards in containing Syracuse star Dyashia Fair. The senior, who ranks third in NCAA history in career points, was held to two points in the first half despite finishing the with 20.

Fair shot just 1-for-7 from the field and didn’t make a single 3-pointer in the first half, though she found some rhythm shooting 4-for-9 from outside the arc after halftime.

“She’s probably the hardest player I’ve ever had to guard in my life, which is huge to say because I’ve had to guard some really, really good players,” senior point guard Nika Muhl said.

“But that was my job today, and I didn’t care about anything else … I told my teammates, I’m going to face guard her and not let her catch it, and you guys be in the gaps and help me. That was our defensive plan, and it’s never a one-man game. It’s never me versus her one-on-one. It’s always a team effort with players like that.”

Star guard Paige Bueckers put UConn on her back offensively with more than half of the team’s 39 first half points, hitting 20 with a last-second jump shot at the halftime buzzer.

UConn women beat Syracuse in March Madness to reach Sweet 16

She finished with 32 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals for her second consecutive double-double — and the second of her career in an NCAA Tournament game. It was also her fourth 30-point performance of the season and her 11th with at least 20 in UConn’s last 12 games.

“She’s doing what we need her to do to win games, and she doesn’t just indiscriminately come down here and chuck stuff up to get points. She passes up shots that she would easily make,” Auriemma said.

“The stats will tell you one thing: The ten rebounds, the six assists and the four steals. But it’s when they happen and how they impact the game that’s so remarkable. I think this team will go as far as she’s able to carry that kind of a lead.”

Syracuse started hot with four 3-pointers in the first quarter, and the Orange led by as many as four points. The Huskies were ahead by a single point entering the second quarter, but Bueckers hit her stride before halftime with 12 of her 20 first-half points coming in the second.

Syracuse women's basketball falls just short against UConn in 2nd round of  NCAA Tournament - syracuse.com

Muhl led UConn with five assists, becoming the program’s career assist leader with 663. Her 660th assist, which broke Moriah Jefferson’s record set from 2012-16, came on a pass to Ashlynn Shade for the freshman’s second 3-pointer of the game.

“It means a lot, and now looking back at it, this is an accomplishment that is shared with all the people, all my teammates, that have been with me here since I was a freshman,” Muhl said.

“It means so much more because it’s a shared accomplishment and it feels like a team accomplishment. It’s proof of unselfish basketball and proof of us putting each other in the best positions (to succeed).”

All-American forward Aaliyah Edwards logged 11 rebounds, now just one shy of 1,000 for her career. She also scored 11 points, for her 18th double-double of the season.

UConn started second half on a four-minute scoring drought as Syracuse put up eight unanswered points including the first 3-pointer of the game from Fair. Shade snapped the run with a jump shot, then sank a buzzer beater at the end of the third quarter to send UConn into the fourth with an 11-point lead.

Huskies forward Aaliyah Edwards (3) works the ball against Syracuse Orange forward Alyssa Latham

The freshman finished with 19 points shooting 5-for-9 on 3-pointers after putting up a career-best 26 in UConn’s first round matchup with Jackson State.

Syracuse nearly derailed the Huskies’ otherwise-dominant performance when Muhl fouled out with five minutes left in the game.

Back-to-back threes from Syracuse with less than three minutes left to play cut UConn’s lead to just four points, but the Huskies held on thanks to a last-minute layup by freshman KK Arnold. Arnold ended with 10 points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals.

“We actually had been in that position before against Notre Dame and we had the wrong approach versus tonight,” Bueckers said. “We drew up a high ball screen, and I think both came to me.

The wing person came up to guard me and KK was wide open … I think that was her work (coming to) fruition, seeing that shot go down and all the hard work paying off and her just stepping up to the plate and being confident enough to take it and hit that big shot. It was really, really awesome to see.”

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