UConn WBB preps for NCAA Tournament with dominant win over St. John's
On Wednesday night, UConn women’s basketball officially began its preparation for March and the NCAA Tournament with a convincing win over St. John’s. The Huskies, who were finally rested after a brutal stretch of five games in 10 days, dismantled the Red Storm 77-32 behind a suffocating defensive performance and 58 combined points from the team’s top three players: Paige Bueckers, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and Christyn Williams.
“It's imperative that they play well in March but it can't start in March. It's got to start right now,” Geno Auriemma said. “You don't become a good March team in March. You have to do that leading up to March and today was a great step in that direction.”
The first step came on the defensive end, where UConn continues to progress with each passing game. When the Huskies played St. John’s exactly two weeks earlier, the Red Storm shot 50.0 percent from the field. On Wednesday, UConn held the hosts to just 29.2 percent shooting.
After the Huskies gave up 90 points in their loss to Arkansas, Auriemma said his team came in thinking they were good defensively because other teams didn’t shoot well. The Huskies took a more proactive approach against the Red Storm on Wednesday by forcing them into bad looks and rarely giving up any easy opportunities.
“I thought our defense was really good and it was good team-wise,” Auriemma said. “We did a great job individually defensively but I thought as a team, our team defense was outstanding tonight. We were really locked in on what we wanted to do. The scouting report, how we – regarding things that they were doing – how we were rotating, it was just really really good and they didn't get a lot of clean, easy, open looks and that's because of the job that we did as a group.”
During UConn's first game against St. John's, Leilani Correa torched the Huskies for 33 points. On Wednesday night, St. John’s only scored 32 points total while Correa went just 1-10 from the floor and finished with two points, in large part due to lockdown defense effort from a surprising source: Christyn Williams.
“I mean that was the main focus going into the game,” she said. “[Correa] scored, what, 33 on us the last game? That was my assignment, I didn’t want it to happen again.”
Williams also had a team-high 21 points on 8-11 shooting, only two games after she went scoreless for just the third time in her career. With her confidence struggling, Auriemma wanted her to focus on the defensive end, knowing the results would follow on offense.
“We've been through scenarios like this in the past where you challenge one of your really good offensive players to be better defensively,” he said. “We gave her a tough assignment. We had her guard the other team's best player and when you do that, I think it takes up so much of your focus that the offense just kind of flows naturally.”
While Williams is no stranger to being UConn's leading scorer and having breakout offensive nights, pairing that with an elite defensive performance is a new development for her.
“This was one of Christine's best games, certainly the best game she's played this year, because it was a complete game,” Auriemma said.
It’s a positive step for Williams and her confidence will need to continue to climb as the Huskies build for March. The junior has proven that she can score – even if she sometimes struggles to do so consistently – but UConn has plenty of players that can find the basket and have been able to make up for Williams' lack of points on off nights.
Williams becoming as a lockdown defender, however, would give the Huskies a piece they have sorely lacked all season long. Though she still has to prove she can defend like that on a consistent basis and can do so against better players, Williams’ effort on Wednesday night is a crucial starting point.
“I hope she feels like I can do this and then some every single night,” Auriemma said. “That's what it's going to take in the NCAA Tournament. It's going to take that kind of effort.”
It’s tough to judge how far a certain player has progressed throughout the season when they only played a handful of minutes at the end of a game that has already been decided. It was telling, though, that Saylor Poffenbarger was the first player not in UConn’s rotation to enter the game on Wednesday.
The early enrollee entered the game with just under five minutes left, 1:19 earlier than Piath Gabriel and nearly three minutes before Mir McLean. Walk-on Autumn Chassion didn’t play at all.
While Poffenbarger only scored three points and shot 1-4 from the field, it was easily her best game of the season. She no longer looked like a deer in headlights, wasn’t glued to the 3-point line, and handled her defensive assignments well. Poffenbarger’s points came off an impressive play when she posted up, made a move to the basket, and finished despite getting fouled. She made the ensuing free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play.
Poffenbarger’s performance didn’t come out of nowhere, either.
“Saylor came in, a little bit wide-eyed, ‘Oh my god, I can't believe I'm here,’ Auriemma said. “And that lasted until the other day and the other day I said, ‘Listen, if you want to play, and you want to contribute this year, you have to stop acting like a high school kid. Like when you were in high school, a month ago, when you were in high school, you could think like a high school player, you can move like a high school player. And now you're in college and you have to think like a college player and you have to move like a college player. So that means there's a whole ‘nother level of effort and intensity and how you gotta push yourself if you want to compete at this level.’”
Poffenbarger received the message loud and clear.
“The response was almost immediate,” Auriemma said. “It was like the next day. Jamelle and CD came over to me and said, ‘What did you say to her? I said, ‘I basically told her that this isn’t high school. She did the rest on her own and I hope she keeps improving, keeps working at it.”