NCAA Women’s Championship: UConn Handles Mercer

After Arizona State lost Connecticut in the Final Four game last season, Husky head coach Gino Orima has been upfront about his team’s maturity level.

“When we’re high and when we’re on top of the world, we think it’s all right,” Orima said at the time. “And when things don’t go our way, there is a feeling of malaise for us. There is a feeling of regret for us because you don’t win trophies when you are like this unless you are lucky.”

Ahead of Connecticut’s convincing 83-38 win over 15th-seeded Mercer in the first round of the championship on Saturday, Orima said his team was more experienced and more complete than it was last year, but the Huskies, seeded No. 2, had yet to face enough adversity to gauge their maturity.

“Teams act really, really mature when the ball goes into the basket,” he said. “It’s kind of funny about that, okay? And suddenly they get so immature when you don’t get in the ball.”

Although Mercer did his best in the first quarter to keep the game close, Connecticut State scored easily with a balanced offensive tackle, made easy buckets in the transition and used the elevation advantage to control attack and defense.

The Paige Bakers, the reigning National Athlete of the Year, was playing for limited minutes while recovering from an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a torn lateral meniscus in her left knee in December. The Bakers, who have averaged 14 minutes per game since the injury, were aggressive in attack and active in defense on Saturday. She finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 25 minutes.

Kristen Williams, Husky’s top scorer with 14.6 points per game, led the team with 13 points.

Defense was one of the Husky’s biggest strengths during their 10-game winning streak, which improved after a few players missed matches due to various injuries.

Mercer fired just 23.2 percent and scored the lowest point in total all season. The Husky press forced several coups at Mercer. Connecticut scored 23 of Mercer’s 21 turnovers.

Connecticut has won 11 NCAA titles under Auriemma, but the most recent came in 2016.

The Husky have struggled at times this season, but many believe their depth and defense could be enough to lift the championship trophy and atone for several seasons of disappointing finishes — disappointing, at least, by their standards.

The coronavirus pandemic may have delayed the post-season ambitions of center Ayoka Lee, the 6-foot-6-footballer in Kansas State, by two years, but no longer. The ninth-seeded Lee and the Wildcats edged out 8-ranked Washington State in an uphill defensive battle, winning by 50-40 and denying the Cougars their first championship win in program history.

Washington State had a seven-point lead in the first half, a lead that seemed substantial given that the score was only 24-17. Lee had one field goal, while Washington State Leisure and Walker sisters, Crystal and Charles, collected 19 points. Both feline keepers, the New Zealand aborigines seemed to be in control early on and took advantage of the Wildcats’ slow pace.

But trying to contain Lee got the Cougars in bad trouble, so I was gradually able to help KS take control of the pace and scoreboard. Her skilful bounce and quick release close to the basket make her a formidable threat to any team that allows her to gain a position inside. The Cougars’ central Bella Moricatetti, who averages 10 points and seven rebounds per game, was stopped without goals and had only three rebounds.

The match was so low-score that once the Wildcats advanced by more than five points, the game felt like it was over. Lee finished the game with 20 points and 15 rebounds, numbers that offer a glimpse into the kind of reliable play she can do — and which the Wildcats will need as they attempt to reach the last 16 for the first time in 20 years.