In November, when Connecticut won back-to-back games against the NET’s top 25 teams—two of their 11 the coach felt would have made them 1 seed for anyone else—Geno Auriemma revealed the crux of the Huskies’ fate.
It wasn’t Azzi Fudd, the sophomore star who carried the most scoring load. It wasn’t health the Huskies struggled with and they never let it sink them.
“It’s really fair or unfair to say,” Auriemma said after their stunning 91-69 win over NC State five months ago. “But our postplayers will decide the fate of our season.”
He challenged Dorka Juhász, 6-foot-1 fifth-year forward, and 6-foot-2 junior Aaliyah Edwards, to take control of the team and provide consistency for when pitches don’t land. It was evident on Saturday, even though many shots were falling, in UConn’s 95-52 victory over No. 15 Vermont during the first round of the NCAA Tournament held in Storrs, Connecticut.
His improved play, which Auriemma called incredible Saturday, was crucial as UConn weathered its injury storm and was on display in the Huskies’ first leg to a 15th straight Final Four.
Edwards, whose rise was key, accompanied them with an accumulated line of 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks. She had as many points in the first quarter as Vermont as a team (12) and was a perfect 8-of-8 at halftime, and remained 10-of-10 in the media’s first timeout in the second half. Some came in the mid lane, including a nice pass by Fudd driving into the paint.
“When she’s making that mid-range shot, it just changes the way our team should be defended,” said Auriemma. “So it’s one of the best games. I thought the first half she played was one of the best basketball halves I’ve seen her play since she’s been in Connecticut.
By the end of the game, she had just missed 2 of 15 tries for her season-high point total. She is the first player since 2000 to have at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists on at least 85% shooting.
“We couldn’t match his athleticism, strength, explosiveness,” said Vermont head coach Alisa Kresge. “We didn’t have an answer for her. The game plan was to try and bend her a little bit, but she’s ready for stuff like that. I thought she did a great job getting us really deep into the painting, and then when we kind of played with her from the perimeter, she landed some perimeter shots.
Edwards, a Canadian national snooker player, was not a factor in UConn’s run to the 2022 title game. She scored 10 points in a regional final overtime win against NC State, a total she could not match. against more strength in the semifinal against Stanford (9) or in the final against South Carolina (8 points, two rebounds, two assists in 37 minutes).
In the second game of the season against the Wolfpack, she had a double-double of 20 points and 12 rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting. She doubled her game averages as a junior to 16.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 blocks per game to earn third-team All-American honors. His 58.3% shooting clip tracks the team, as does his score.
It wasn’t a one-post success story. Juhász came off the bench in the last NCAA Tournament, his first after transferring from Ohio State, and scored 10 points in the first round. She scored just five in the next three games and was unable to play in the Final Four due to a wrist injury.
This season as a regular starter, she also doubled her averages to 14.3 points, 10 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. His shooting percentage of 50% is a career best. She scored 15 points, trailing Edwards, as Vermont went on 7-of-10 shooting with 10 rebounds (all defensive), six assists, three steals and three blocks.
“She’s very humble off the court, but once you get on the court, she’s fierce, and I don’t think anyone should take that seriously,” Edwards said. “She is a force inside and out. I think as a team we love that about her because she’s unpredictable in that way because she can capitalize low but also on the perimeter she can hit that 3 that everybody knows she can.
Caroline Ducharme came off the bench to go 4-for-4, including two 3-pointers, for 12 points. All 10 players scored minutes, an unlikely score even a few weeks ago when the Big East quarterfinals began with all of them available for only the second time this season. Paige Bueckers and rookie Ice Brady are out for the season due to injuries.
Edwards is one of only two UConn players to play in every game, as injuries hit the roster hard. The other is point guard Lou Lopez Sénéchal, a Fairfield transfer who brought the kicking touch UConn needed in Fudd’s absence. She left early in the second half and did not return. Sénéchal said he overextended his leg a bit and Auriemma didn’t want to take any chances.
Having a healthy 10 will only help Edwards and Juhász more. UConn wards are a bigger threat that will drive defenders away from both. They will be facing fewer double and triple teams, giving them more room to work and increasing the pace of transition from the “real hard work” it has been.
“We couldn’t do as much defensively and we couldn’t do as much offensively,” said Auriemma. “Now you see the difference and the results are what they are. I’m glad it’s happening. It only took five months.”
UConn was 61.9% from the floor collectively and 6-of-18 from 3-point range. Fudd was 2-of-10 overall, 1-of-8 from 3-point range, for five points with four rebounds.
They dominated the boards, 43-19, and assisted on 27 of their 39 shots. Defensively, they allowed Vermont 11-3 shooting, but held them to 33.3% shooting overall.
It was a good warm-up for the second round, where they will face No. 7 Baylor. A win will send them off to Seattle, where they’ll play in the Pacific time zone during the tournament for the first time since 2007.
That was also the last time they lost the Final Four, but the greats know that fate depends more on them than a statistic in game scores.