Edwards, Nelson-Ododa carry UConn WBB to victory in regular-season finale
UConn women’s basketball officially kicked off the most important month of the year by closing out their regular season with a 63-53 victory over Marquette. It was a defensive slog with both teams shooting around 40 percent with 15 turnovers apiece. While the Huskies were never really in any danger, they had to battle for all 40 minutes to earn the win.
Geno Auriemma couldn’t have drawn it up any better, though. In his mind, there’s no better way for his team to kick off March.
“I believe so,” he said when asked whether this game was similar to what they’ll face later this month. “We talked about that with our team, that this time of the year, yeah, you would love it to be everybody comes down, wide-open threes, you knock them in. Isn't that great? But the reality of the situation is that's generally not how the (NCAA Tournament) games are played.”
UConn made just 28-67 from the field with only three made 3-pointers on 16 attempts. The Huskies’ guards particularly struggled with Paige Bueckers, Nika Muhl, Evina Westbrook, and Christyn Williams combining for a measly 24 points – 13 of which came from Bueckers – on 10-37 shooting. With UConn generating little offense from the perimeter, it needed to get the ball inside to score.
Enter Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
The two dominated in the paint with Edwards totaling 16 points and eight rebounds (five offensive) while Nelson-Ododa recorded 19 points and 10 rebounds. UConn out-scored Marquette 40-22 in the paint and won the rebounding battle 43-25 – including an 18-7 advantage on the offensive glass.
“I thought in the second half, Olivia and Aaliyah carried the team,” Auriemma said. “We said at halftime somebody is going to have to step up and make some plays and do something other than clap for Paige to shoot the ball. I thought those two really stepped up big time.”
Their respective performances weren’t just an aberration, either. Nelson-Ododa has re-found her early-season form after a tough stretch in the middle of the year, scoring in double-figures in her last five games. She’s also been strong on the boards with half of her six double-doubles this season coming since Feb. 10.
“How many games is this in a row now where Olivia goes after every rebound? She works her butt off in there,” Auriemma said. “She's gotten really good at finishing. Her three steals – she's active defensively.”
As for Edwards, the freshman closed the regular season with 40 points on 16-19 shooting with 22 rebounds over her last two games. Like Nelson-Ododa, Edwards started the year strong with at least 10 points in four of her first six contests but cooled off in January. Though she showed flashes of her ability – like her 22-point, nine-rebound effort against St. John’s on Feb. 3 – she couldn’t sustain that level of play game to game.
Edwards has finally turned the corner, however. Her two career double-doubles have come in the last four games and she’s visibly more confident on the floor. She's also been ruthlessly efficient with just four misses in her last three games, which has pushed her to second in the country in field goal percentage at 70.4 percent.
“I don't think Aliyah is getting enough credit for how much she's doing for our team right now,” Auriemma said.
While UConn will still rely heavily on Bueckers in the postseason, Edwards and Nelson-Ododa give the Huskies a combination they’ve lacked in the past. Unlike last season, when UConn needed to hit its shots to win games, this year’s team can survive an off-shooting night like Monday with the way its two bigs are playing.
“We can't go into every game needing 30 from Paige to win. We can't. I don't know that that's possible,” Auriemma said. “But what Aaliyah and Olivia did is the next best thing to make a lot of shots – rebound the ones that don't go in.”