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Paige Bueckers was back in the starting lineup and No. 2 seed UConn once again dominated its opposition in an NCAA Tournament opener.
Bueckers scored 12 points as UConn began its run toward a 12th NCAA Tournament title with an 83-38 first-round rout of No. 15 seed Mercer on Saturday in the Bridgeport Regional.
Last season’s national player of the year played 24 minutes, the most in six games since coming back from a left knee injury that kept her out for more than two months. She hit five of her seven shots from the floor and also had five assists and four rebounds.
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Bueckers said she’s getting more and more confident in her game.
“I think ever since the end of the Big East Tournament I’ve just tried to lock in mentally and physically and trying to do whatever I have to do, cut certain stuff out and just really lock in on this next month,” Bueckers said.
“Just getting my body prepared, my mind prepared, and I think in the last 10 days I really locked in on that.”
Christyn Williams had 13 points to lead the Huskies (26-5) who opened the tournament with a win for an NCAA record 28th straight time. Dorka Juhasz added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Shannon Titus had 12 points to lead Mercer (23-7), which was making its fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and came in on a 12-game winning streak. The Southern Conference champion Bears have never won an NCAA Tournament game.
The Huskies led 43-23 at halftime, then shut out Mercer 20-0 in the third quarter. It was the third time since the women went to quarters in 2016 that a team has held an opponent scoreless for a period in a NCAA Tournament game. Stanford shut out Montana State in the first quarter Friday night and South Carolina held Texas scoreless for a quarter in the 2021 tournament.
The Huskies held Mercer to just 13 baskets on 56 shots (23%).
“You can’t win with just playing really good defense, you know? Otherwise there would be a lot of great defensive teams that win a lot of championships,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “You still have to be able to put the ball in the basket, right? So you have to be able to score. But the best teams that we’ve had over the years have been really hard to score against, really hard to run their offense against, and because we put the kind of pressure we put on them by scoring, now it puts even more pressure on them to have to score and it just, you know, kind of accelerates the down slide.”
Mercer played much of the game without leading scorer Amoria Neal-Tysor (17 points per game), who went down hard on her left elbow while driving to the basket in the second quarter and had to be helped to the locker room. She finished with four points and came out for the second half with her arm in a sling.
“It shook us,” coach Susie Gardner said. “I mean, we were unable to run a lot of our plays that we normally run because Erin (Houpt) and Endia (Banks) don’t really have a large vocabulary in terms of what they can run. But I felt like Erin did pretty well. What it did, though, was it took her out of position to get open for her threes because she then had to handle the ball.”
Mercer: The Bears had allowed just one other opponent to score 70 points this season. That came early in December in a 71-70 overtime loss to Tennessee State.
UConn: The Huskies improve to 126-21 in the NCAA Tournament and 29-2 in their opening game.
UConn’s 28 straight first-round wins breaks a tie with Tennessee, which won 27 straight between 1982 and 2008, before losing to Ball State in 2009.
The 38 points is the fewest the Huskies have given up in an NCAA Tournament game since 2016, when they beat Mississippi State 98-38 in a regional semifinal. It was the fewest in an opening-round win since they beat St. Francis 89-33 in 2015. The Huskies also gave up just 33 points in win over UMBC in 2007 and outscored Long Island 101-29 in the first round of the 2001 tournament.
UConn will face No. 7 seed UCF on Monday. The Huskies are 13-0 all-time against the Knights, who beat Florida 69-52 in the opening round.