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N.C.A.A. Women’s Tournament: UConn Handles Mercer

After Arizona handed Connecticut a humbling loss in last season’s Final Four, Geno Auriemma, the Huskies’ head coach, was blunt about his team’s level of maturity.

“When we’re high and when we’re on top of the world, we think everything’s great,” Auriemma said at the time. “And when things don’t go our way, there’s a pouty-ness about us. There’s a feeling sorry for ourselves about us that you don’t win championships when you’re like that unless you get lucky.”

Before Connecticut’s convincing 83-38 win over 15th-seeded Mercer in the first round of the tournament on Saturday, Auriemma said that his team was more experienced and more complete than it was last year, but that the Huskies, a No. 2 seed, had not yet faced enough adversity to measure how much they had matured.

“Teams act really, really mature when the ball’s going in the basket,” he said. “It’s kind of funny about that, all right? And all of a sudden they become very immature when the ball’s not going in.”

Despite Mercer’s best efforts in the first quarter to keep the game close, Connecticut scored with ease with a balanced offensive attack, made easy buckets in transition and used its height advantage to dominate on offense and defense.

Paige Bueckers, the reigning national player of the year, had been playing limited minutes while recovering from an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in her left knee in December. Bueckers, who has averaged about 14 minutes per game since the injury, was aggressive on offense and active on defense Saturday. She finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 25 minutes.

Every UConn player who checked into the game scored at least once, including senior guard Christyn Williams, the Huskies’ leading scorer with 14.6 points per game, who led the team with 13 points.

One of the Huskies’ biggest strengths during their 10-game winning streak has been defense, which has improved after a handful of players missed games with various injuries.

Mercer shot just 23.2 percent and scored its lowest point total all season. The Huskies’ full court press forced several Mercer turnovers. Connecticut scored 23 points off 21 Mercer turnovers.

Connecticut has won 11 N.C.A.A. titles under Auriemma, but its last came in 2016.

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

The coronavirus pandemic may have delayed the postseason ambitions of Ayoka Lee, Kansas State’s 6-foot-6 center, for two years, but no longer. Lee and the ninth-seeded Wildcats outlasted No. 8-seeded Washington State in a hard-fought defensive battle, winning 50-40 and denying the Cougars their first tournament win in program history.

Washington State was up seven points at halftime, a lead that seemed substantial given that the score was just 24-17. Lee had made a single field goal, while Washington State’s Leger-Walker sisters, Krystal and Charlisse, had combined for 19 points. Both crafty guards, the New Zealand natives appeared in control early and capitalized on the Wildcats’ slow pace.

But trying to contain Lee had gotten the Cougars into foul trouble, and so gradually she was able to help Kansas State get in control of the pace and the scoreboard. Her deft rebounding and quick release near the basket make her an imposing threat to any team that allows her to get position inside. The Cougars’ center Bella Murekatete, who typically averages 10 points and seven rebounds per game, was held scoreless and grabbed just three rebounds.

The matchup was so low-scoring that once the Wildcats were more than five points ahead, the game felt all but over. Lee finished the game with 20 points and 15 rebounds, numbers that offer a glimpse of the kind of authoritative play she is capable of — and that the Wildcats will need as they try to make it to the round of 16 for the first time in 20 years.

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