Yet again dealing with a shorthanded backcourt with the absences of Christyn Williams (COVID-19 protocols), Azzi Fudd (foot) and Paige Bueckers (knee), the No. 9 UConn women’s basketball team looked to its posts to deliver a win over Seton Hall on Friday night and to keep its streak dating back to 1993 of avoiding consecutive losses alive.
The frontcourt — with an assist from improved guard play from Nika Mühl and Evina Westbrook — did just that. UConn dominated the paint and glass to propel the Huskies over Big East foe Seton Hall 71-38 at Gampel Pavilion in what coach Geno Auriemma called a “team win.”
Senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa scored in double figures for the fourth-straight game with 17 points, while also collecting her third double-double of the season with 14 rebounds. Graduate student Dorka Juhász scored 11 of her 12 points in the first half, while Mühl finished with a season-high 11 points thanks to three 3s.
UConn won the points in the paint battle 38-8 and out-rebounded the Pirates 53-25, while also scoring 21 second-chance points.
“Today [the posts] showed out, and they really came through for us,” said Westbrook, who chipped in 13 points.
Auriemma was pleased with his group’s all-around effort, even in a game where they didn’t shoot great (41% from the field, 20% on 3s). The Huskies’ ball movement improved from Monday’s loss to Oregon, and they had six turnovers going into the final quarter, reflecting much sharper offensive execution.
“I thought we played more as a group, more as a unit today than we have,” Auriemma said. “We were much more cohesive today than we were on Monday. Communication was better today, and the chemistry was better today.
“We made good decisions. Our guard play was really good. You can shoot poorly and still play well. And I think that’s what happened today.”
The Huskies’ defense came through as well, limiting Seton Hall’s best scorers, Lauren Park-Lane and Andra Espinoza-Hunter, to 2-for-19 shooting and 11 total points.
For the UConn players, it was a step in the right direction after a devastating loss to Oregon.
“I feel like the Oregon game really left a trace on us,” Mühl said. “We were all in a bad mental state after that game, and we said to ourselves, ‘That can’t happen again.’ So I feel like we really played as a team today. I feel like everybody contributed, did everything that they could do, and this is the result.”
UConn was humming offensively early, jumping ahead 18-9 by getting out in transition and demonstrating good ball and player movement. Though the Huskies slowed down offensively, their posts got the job done.
At the half, when the Huskies led 37-21, they held a 20-6 edge in points in the paint, a 28-13 advantage on the boards and had scored 12 second-chance points.
The team made just two of its 18 3-point attempts, though. The Huskies outside of Mühl missed their first 14 3-point attempts until Caroline Ducharme (seven points) sank one midway through the third.
Mühl finished 3 for 7 on 3s, the most she’s made in a game this season. The rest of the team was 3 for 23 from the arc.
UConn pulled away in the third, leading by as many as 28 and outscoring the Pirates 19-8 behind eight points from Nelson-Ododa. The Huskies also forced six Seton Hall turnovers and ultimately held the Pirates to 17 second-half points.
Westbrook had a better outing Friday than she had Monday, her 13 points the most she’s scored since the Butler game, and recorded just one turnover. She admitted her shooting slump (1-for-8 on 3s Friday) and struggling play at times is “beyond frustrating,” but she tries to stay confident not just for herself but for her teammates.
“I know my team needs me to be positive and still be a leader,” Westbrook said. "Obviously I haven’t been playing my best game, and we need that in order to win. My team has been great to me as well as uplifting me. ... Being an older guy, I’ve kind of already been through it. I know I’m going to come out the other side. Now it’s just a matter of when. A game like today will definitely help. And we’ve just got to get through it together. All of us.”
Piath Gabriel on the rise
Sophomore Piath Gabriel has seen more playing time over the last week or so than she’d seen the rest of the season, playing the entire fourth quarter against Xavier, where she scored a career-high nine points, and then 7:34 Friday against the Pirates, during which she scored five points and had two rebounds plus an assist.
Auriemma says it’s a product of her hard work and a commitment to get better.
“Piath is really working hard every day, and that’s something she wasn’t doing last year,” Auriemma said. “Piath has made a concerted effort to want to get better as a basketball player. And it shows. ... The reason she’s getting some playing time is her work ethic has changed ... and the harder she works, the more she’s going to play.
“I couldn’t be happier for anybody.”
This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: UConn wears down Seton Hall