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UConn coach Geno Auriemma noted Monday night that basketball is a contact sport — something that was evident after the Huskies outfought UCF in what could have been a UFC match.
Freshman Azzi Fudd scored 16 points and hit two key free throws late as No. 2 seed Connecticut outfought No. 7 seed UCF 52-47 in a defensive slugfest to an NCAA record 28th straight Sweet 16.
“This was a rather new experience for me,” Auriemma said. “It was what we thought it would be. It was going to be really difficult and it was going to be ugly looking and it was.”
“We could have easily let that game get away from us and we didn’t,” he said.
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Christyn Williams added 12 points and Paige Bueckers had nine for the Huskies (27-5), who have not allowed an opponent to score more than 51 points in their last 10 games.
The game was extremely physical, with both teams pressing and playing lock-down defense. There were 45 fouls called, 24 on UCF.
“It was a battle the whole game,” Williams said. “We just tried to throw the first punch and keep punching them.”
Diamond Battles scored 12 points, Brittney Smith added 11 and Tay Sanders had 10 for UCF (26-4), which saw its season end along with a 14-game winning streak.
These two former American Athletic Conference foes knew each other well and the Knights weren’t intimidated playing in front of a loud sold-out Connecticut crowd where the students were cheering baskets made in pregame warmups.
UCF jumped out to an 11-4 lead early and led by eight points in the first half.
The Huskies fought back, led by three at halftime and extended that to 12 points midway through the fourth quarter.
They led by 10 before Sanders 3-pointer from the left corner with 3 1/2 minutes remaining made it 48-41 and started the Knight’s final push.
UCF closed the gap to three points twice, the last time when Williams fouled Smith with 15.1 seconds left and the 6-foot-3 post hit her foul shots to cut the deficit to 50-47.
But Sanders fouled Fudd on the other end and the freshman calmly made her free throws to seal the win.
The Knights held UConn to just 14 baskets on 48 shots (29.2%), but hit just 16 of their 46 (34.8%). UCF also struggled from the foul line, going just 10 of 20.
UCF: The Knights have had the most successful season in school history, winning the AAC regular season and tournament titles, earning their first Top 25 ranking, notching their first NCAA Tournament win and beating in-state rival Florida for the first time ever after 26 straight losses. Monday’s loss was the Knights first in 15 games.
“Our team is amazing,” coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. We accomplished so many goals.”
“I told them keep your head up. You are warriors. You are a great team. You deserved, sorry, a better place to go play.”
UConn: UConn, which beat mercer 83-38 in the first round, improves to 18-3 as a No. 2 seed and 29-2 all-time in the second round, where they last lost in 1992. They fell in the first round a year later. The Huskies move on the Sweet 16, where they have not lost since falling to Stanford in 2005.
Auriemma said it’s clear Bueckers won’t be able to return this season to the form she showed last year. Bueckers has played seven games since returning from a left knee injury in early December that kept her out for well over two months. She played 32 minutes on Monday night — eight more than she did on Saturday in the first round win.
“Those moments that she has that are really, really good, I’m happy, I’m thrilled for her,” he said. “But, there is still a lot going on out on the court that you can see that’s not the same player that we saw all of last year. But having her on the court obviously benefits us in so many ways.”
The banging started early, with Aaliyah Edwards and Diamond Battles diving out of bounds and pushing each other to get to a loose ball. Later in the first half, Bueckers and Sanders battled each other for a tie-up and kept fighting long after the whistle blew, prompting the UConn’s star to signal the student section to make some noise.
“We were expecting it to be physical, but I don’t think they were expecting us to be as physical,” Battles said. “We came out and did what we do best. The toughness, that’s what we are. That’s who we are.”
The 52 points was the second fewest the Huskies have had this season. They lost 57-44 the game to Georgia Tech the game after Bueckers went down with her injury.
UConn will face Indiana in Bridgeport on Saturday. The third-seeded Hoosiers beat Princeton 56-55 on Monday night.