No. 6 UConn women’s basketball pads lead in Big East title race with 60-51 victory at No. 14 Villanova

The UConn women’s basketball team secured its biggest conference win of the season on Saturday.

The No. 6 Huskies defeated the No. 14 Villanova Wildcats 60-51 in front of a sellout crowd at Finneran Pavilion to secure a two-game lead in the Big East standings with three games left in the regular season.

The Wildcats managed a late push to trim UConn’s lead to two points with under four minutes left. But the Huskies held their opponent without a field goal the rest of the way en route to the victory.

“Obviously, we’re Connecticut, so the expectations are such that we have to win every game,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “And we have to win the Big East championship every single year. And we got to win the tournament every year. And we gotta go to the Final Four every year. I don’t think there’s any other program in America that has those expectations placed on them.

“You get in a situation like we’re in this year, it has a little different significance I think. Like what’s more important, we go all out to try to win the next three games and then we go all out trying to win three games in the Big East tournament and then we limp into the NCAA tournament because we’re not 100% or even 80% healthy. So this is one of those years where right now we play every game as hard as we can, but I think the main focus is trying to keep everybody healthy as they can. So having a two-game lead, I mean that could disappear in two games — St. John’s and DePaul, it could go away. So it’s breathing room, but it’s not anything more than that.”

UConn (24-4, 16-1 Big East) is now 6-3 against AP Top 25 opponents this season.

Lou Lopez Sénéchal led the Huskies with 22 points, along with four rebounds.

Dorka Juhász (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Aaliyah Edwards (13 points, 14 rebounds) both recorded double-doubles, despite Juhász spraining her ankle in practice Friday. Nika Mühl had eight assists.

Villanova star Maddy Siegrist, the nation’s leading scorer who had averaged 44.5 points over the last two games, was held to 21 points — 10 of which came in the first quarter — on 8 of 22 shooting. She also only grabbed two rebounds.

“She’s an amazing player and I think Aaliyah did a tremendous job on her,” Juhász said. “We were really focusing on her, kind of just bothering her and find a way to kind of take her out of the game. And she still scored, but in the end I think we did a great job and that’s how we won the game.”

As a whole, UConn held Villanova’s offense to 33% (20 of 60) shooting from the field and 20% (5 of 25) from deep. The Huskies shot 42.6% (20 of 47) from the field and 30% (3 of 10) from deep while committing 22 turnovers.

The game was back and forth to start, but UConn managed to build its lead to as much as nine points when Lopez Sénéchal drained a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in the first quarter.

Siegrist answered with a second-chance jumper on the other end and by the end of the first, Villanova had trimmed UConn’s lead to 19-15.

The Huskies shot 64.3% from the field in the opening frame, but that completely flipped in the second quarter as the game became more physical with lots of fouls called on both ends of the floor. UConn was 1 of 5 from the field with six turnovers through five minutes of the second.

Mühl was visibly upset after being called for her second foul while trying to box out Siegrist for a rebound. She was called for her third right after with 6:18 left in the second quarter, but stayed in the game.

“(Mühl) plays on so much emotion and energy and toughness that she thinks she can out-tough any situation,” Auriemma said. “And getting those three fouls, I think it forced her to take a deep breath and start to play more strategically .... Learning how to play with fouls is a real art, and I think she grew up a lot tonight in that respect.”

The Huskies managed to rebuild their lead to 26-20 with 3:06 left after a layup and foul shots from Edwards, but the Wildcats quickly erased it. Maddie Burke hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 26 with 1:55 left, part of a 6-0 Villanova run that had the home crowd going nuts.

UConn led by a slim 28-26 margin at halftime after only scoring nine points in the second on 21.4% shooting with seven turnovers. The Huskies had 11 total in the first half.

Siegrist drove inside and scored a layup to tie the game at 33 with 5:45 left in the third quarter. Edwards scored a layup on the other end to put UConn up two, but the offense slowed from there with fatigue setting in.

Both teams shot under 37% from the field in the third. Caroline Ducharme, in her second game back after missing 13 with a concussion, scored six points over the last three minutes of the quarter to give UConn a 44-39 lead entering the final frame of play.

Lopez Sénéchal opened the fourth quarter with two makes at the charity stripe. She knocked down a triple at the top of they key shortly after to give UConn a 49-39 lead — its largest of the afternoon to that point— and force a Villanova timeout with 8:47 left.

A few minutes later, Lopez Sénéchal was called for her fourth foul. UConn called timeout, up 52-42 with 6:38 left. She stayed in the game but Villanova found life from there to make it a tight game.

Siegrist drilled a 3-pointer from top of the key with under five minutes left. Lucy Olsen hit another triple on the other end shortly after, following a missed layup from Edwards. Ducharme took a shot to the face in the process and had to be subbed out (though she later came back in). Then Siegrist came up with a steal and Olsen hit a jumper, capping off a 10-0 run to trim the Huskies’ lead to 52-50 with 3:56 left.

“I think for us, that was a moment to huddle up, ‘Hey, lock in even more defensively and get some stops and get some offensive rebounds, get fouled,’” Juhász said. “I think we were pretty confident we were gonna pull this out, and everybody just bought in a little bit extra.”

Lopez Sénéchal came up clutch when UConn needed it most. She made a tough pull-up jumper with a little over a minute left to make it a 56-51 game. She then sealed the game with two free throws with 46.4 seconds left, after Olsen missed both shots for Villanova at the line.

Edwards and Griffin also made shots at the line to further pad the lead down the stretch.

“We just changed up our offense a little bit to make sure that we got the ball in Lou’s hands more,” Auriemma said. “And then our kids just made some plays. It’s not like we invented anything, we just made some big plays.”

The Huskies are back in action on Tuesday, when they take on St. John’s at the XL Center. The game will tip-off at 7 p.m. on SNY.