UConn is in trouble. Except when it’s not. It’s a draining, season-long conundrum that requires discussion since the team remains a top-five-ranked club and destined for a Final Four.
The Huskies (20-2, 11-0 Big East) handled DePaul’s Aneesah Morrow, quieted doubters by squashing rival Tennessee and escaped Big East foe Villanova for another perfect week. They’ll face their biggest test of the season on Sunday when they host No. 1 South Carolina in a national championship game rematch. Given their season of unprecedented injuries, it’s a stretch that gives a glimpse into how the roster will handle high-stakes games during the NCAA tournament.
First, the trouble. The issues bubbled up against Tennessee when head coach Geno Auriemma appeared to amend his halftime outburst at officials by explaining his team had started to make mental mistakes in the second quarter that flipped a 33-7 lead into a slim 40-36 one.
“With like 2 1/2 minutes left in the second, I’m saying to my assistants, ‘We need halftime to hurry up and get here,’” Auriemma told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the 84-67 win.
Aaliyah Edwards, the post player who has stepped up and provided UConn’s crucial offensive foundation, noted that there’s more than physical fatigue when you’re suddenly playing nearly every minute of a game.
“It’s more mental than anything,” Edwards said. “We take the right precautions in practice, take care of our bodies, but it’s going to be a grind until we have our full team back. It is draining to be checked in for virtually every tick of a basketball game, to not get a blow on the bench for the brain break as much as the body rest.”
That became even more clear days later against Villanova, the program that ended UConn’s 145-game conference regular season winning streak dating back to 2013. Wildcats star Maddy Siegrist hit tough shots and got her 25 points and eight rebounds, albeit on an uncharacteristic 9-of-23 outing. Multiple UConn players were in foul trouble, a no-no with the short bench, and only six played.
Villanova kept UConn scoreless for the first 6:27 of the third, a taxing stretch of more than 12 real-time minutes that fans at XL Center had to stand before the first points. And the game came down to the final possessions when fatigue can determine the victor. It was UConn that earned another top-25 win for the committee to consider after Villanova, which tied it at 3:05, hit only a 3-pointer down the stretch.
It could have easily gone the opposite way for UConn. But there’s only trouble until there’s not.
UConn is in a position to host first- and second-round NCAA tournament games, but this year the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight will be held at two sites, neither of which is in its backyard. Will mental and/or physical fatigue catch up with it then?
Loser: Ohio State’s lousy, no-good week
Ohio State came into the week one of three remaining undefeated Division I teams, and the lone undefeated team in the Big Ten. But as we noted last week, the Buckeyes had yet to play Iowa, Indiana or Maryland. Six of their first eight conference games were against teams in the bottom half of the standings.
They came down to Earth with three straight losses to then-No. 10 Iowa 83-72; then-No. 6 Indiana 78-65; and unranked Purdue 73-65, which has moved up to 6-5 in the conference. It was three of their four lowest-scoring games of the season as they continue without Jacy Sheldon and Madison Greene. And two of their opponents’ five highest-scoring outputs, joining a 2-point overtime win over South Florida and a 6-point win over Illinois.
The Buckeyes (19-3, 8-3) travel to Wisconsin (7-15, 2-8) on Wednesday and Maryland (17-4, 8-2) on Sunday. They’ve dropped below Indiana (10-1), Iowa (9-1) and Maryland in the conference standings.
Winner: Caitlin Clark triple-double watch
Caitlin Clark put up a monster 28-point, 15-assist triple-double to lead Iowa over Ohio State, upping her conference record to eight in her collegiate career.
It’s the almost-marks that are just as impressive. Against Nebraska days later, Clark neared it with 33 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. It was the third time in the past five games, and fourth time this season, that she came within one rebound or one assist of a triple-double.
She had 26 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists against Michigan State five days before upsetting OSU. And against Northwestern on Jan. 11, she scored 20 points with nine rebounds and 14 assists. In the fourth game of that stretch against Penn State, she was still on watch with 27 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.
Clark continues to pad her National Player of the Year case by averaging 27.1 ppg (second in DI), 7.9 rpg and 7.9 apg (second). Iowa (17-4, 9-1) will host Maryland on Thursday.
Winner: Brink’s blocks
Stanford’s Cameron Brink secured a triple-double with a career-high 10 blocks, marking the second time in Pac-12 history a triple-double has included blocks. Brink added 16 points and 11 rebounds for Stanford (21-2, 9-1 Pac-12) in a 62-54 win over Oregon (14-7, 5-5) at Maples Pavilion on Sunday.
Brink has struggled with fouls over her career and has had to sit in key games. But against Oregon, she had only two in 32 minutes and the Cardinal defense held the Ducks to a season-low 54 points. Her final block came with 3:16 left, though at first it didn’t register in the scorebook.
“I think I just started out hot,” Brink said. “They started driving in the paint, I just started blocking shots. … It was a fun game.
“I’m really excited about [the triple-double]. I love blocking shots, it’s probably what I do best. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but I’m glad it paid off today.”
She had six blocks each against Colorado and Oregon State in the two games heading into Sunday. Her previous season high was seven against UCLA. She’s averaging 14.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg and 3.8 bpg in 24.4 mpg. Her 88 blocks lead Division I and are already tied with her freshman season and three short of her 91 as a sophomore. She needs seven more for the Stanford record.
“What a great game for Cam,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I don’t think there’s anyone on the block that’s any better in our league for sure, and I think she challenges anyone nationally.”
Brink could declare for the WNBA Draft since she turns 22 this calendar year (her birthday is Dec. 31). She said at the beginning of the season she doesn’t think she will declare. Women’s players leaving early has always been rare, but could become even more unlikely with NIL money.
Winner: Vanderbilt’s Ciaja Harbison
Ciaja Harbison’s record day placed Vanderbilt into the SEC win column for the first time. The graduate senior guard scored a record-tying 41 points in the 88-79 win over Texas A&M (6-13, 1-8). She was 14-of-19 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, and 11-of-13 at the free-throw line. It was her third game of at least 30 points.
She shares the record with Chantelle Anderson, who set it in 2001 against Mississippi State. Anderson happened to be in attendance as part of the program’s Alumni Day.
Harbison received an engraved basketball from head coach Shea Ralph pregame for scoring 2,000 career points. She scored the team’s final 7 points, including an and-1 that tied it. But her jumper with 12 seconds left that would have put her into sole possession of the record bounced off the rim.
A transfer from St. Louis, Harbison is in her first and only season with the program. She was the school’s second-leading scorer with 1,688 points, her 15.9 ppg average ranks third, and she’s top-five in assists (403), steals (156) and free-throw percentage (80.7). She started all 106 games over four years.
Harbison leads the Vanderbilt (10-12, 1-7 SEC) offense, averaging 18.4 ppg and 4.6 rpg. Her scoring ranks second in the SEC and assists rank fourth.
Loser: Duke’s shooting touch
Duke (18-3, 8-2 ACC) experienced far and away its worst field-goal percentage of the season in a 70-57 loss to Florida State (19-5, 8-3 ACC) on Sunday. The Blue Devils were in contention early, but couldn’t fight through a 26.4% shooting clip, worse than their losses to UConn (32.8%) and North Carolina (33.3%).
Shayeann Day-Wilson was the only player in double figures (14 points) and one of two Duke players to make more than two field goals (5-of-9). Vanessa de Jesus was 3-of-5, and no other player shot better than 28%.
Defense wasn’t anything to hang its cap on, either. The Blue Devils gave up more than 60 points for only the third time this season, joining their 78-50 loss to UConn and 61-56 loss to North Carolina. But they did win in blocks, 11-2. It was a season high, besting the eight they’ve totaled three separate times.
Every game is going to matter by the end of the ACC gauntlet. Thankfully for Duke, Notre Dame (17-3, 8-2) also lost on Sunday and the two remain tied atop the standings. They meet on Sunday in South Bend.
FSU and UNC each have three league losses. Virginia Tech, Louisville, NC State and Miami all have four apiece.
Winner: Pili with the play of the week
Alissa Pili’s drive through the lane in the final seconds gave Utah a win over Pac-12 foe and AP-ranked UCLA 71-69 and kept its record at home unscathed.
Pili led all players with 23 points and nine rebounds and her final two buckets closed a game-ending 7-0 run for Utah to win. The Utes trailed for 30 minutes, but kept UCLA scoreless over the final 68 seconds. Pili’s 3-pointer — her only of the game — tied it at 69 with 40.3 seconds on the clock. The 6-foot-2 junior forward transfer from USC is averaging 20.3 points (top-20 in DI) and shooting 61.9%.
It’s the second consecutive one-possession loss for UCLA, which dropped a 73-70 game to Colorado in overtime on Friday. Emily Bessoir scored a career-high 17 points, including five 3s, and had six rebounds to lead the Bruins. Freshman guard Kiki Rice had 11 points.
Utah (18-2, 8-2) makes its Oregon trip next while it looks to keep pace with Stanford (9-1 Pac-12) and ahead of Colorado (16-5, 7-3). UCLA and Arizona are each 6-4 in conference play and Washington State and Oregon are at .500 (5-5).
Must-watch games this week
Tennessee (16-7, 8-0 SEC) at LSU (20-0, 8-0), 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 — Two of the three undefeated SEC teams meet on Monday night. It will be one of the few premier LSU matchups of the year. Head coach Kim Mulkey threw more fire on it when she said “we’re not supposed to beat Tennessee,” even though her Tigers believe they’re deserving of a No. 3 national ranking. It is one of the few opportunities against top competition for Angel Reese to cement her standing as a legitimate National Player of the Year contender.
Maryland (17-4, 8-2 Big Ten) at Iowa (17-4, 9-1), 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN — Iowa and Indiana are the lone one-loss teams in Big Ten play and every game against top competition will matter in a race that could come down to the final days again. It’s the first of two meetings between them.
South Carolina (21-0) at UConn (20-2), noon ET on Fox — It’s a national championship game rematch and a potential Final Four preview. South Carolina is on a 27-game winning streak and UConn is 11-0 at home this season.
Duke (18-3, 8-2 ACC) at Notre Dame (17-3, 8-2), 1 p.m. ET on ACCNX — Duke and Notre Dame are the favorites to win the ACC and have led the way throughout. It is their only meeting this season and could go on to determine the regular season champion.
Ohio State (19-3, 8-3 Big Ten) at Maryland (17-4, 8-2), 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2 — Ohio State is now looking up at three teams in the Big Ten standings after an undefeated 8-0 start. One of them is Maryland, which goes into the week in third place. It’s their first of two meetings. The second is the final game of the season on Feb. 24.
More games to watch this week
Illinois (17-5, 7-4 Big Ten) at Michigan (17-5, 7-4), 6:30 p.m. ET on BTN
Arizona (16-5, 6-4 Pac-12) at UCLA (17-5, 6-4), 11 p.m. ET on P12N
West Virginia (14-5, 5-3 Big 12) at Oklahoma (16-4, 6-3), 3 p.m. ET on ESPN+
Baylor (14-6, 5-3 Big 12) at Iowa State (15-4, 7-2 Big 12), 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU
North Carolina (16-5, 7-3 ACC) at Louisville (16-8, 7-4 ACC), noon ET on ESPN2
Arizona (16-5, 6-4 Pac-12) at USC (16-5, 6-4), 3 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Networks
Utah (18-2, 8-2 Pac-12) at Oregon (14-7, 5-5), 5 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Networks
1. South Carolina (21-0)
2. Stanford (21-2)
3. LSU (20-0)
4. Indiana (20-1)
5. UConn (20-2)
6. Iowa (17-4)
7. Utah (18-2)
8. Maryland (17-4)
9. Notre Dame (17-3)
10. Ohio State (19-3)
11. North Carolina (16-5)
12. Iowa State (15-4)
13. Virginia Tech (17-4)
14. UCLA (17-5)
15. NC State (16-5)
16. Duke (18-3)
17. Gonzaga (21-2)
18. Michigan (17-5)
19. Villanova (18-4)
20. Oklahoma (16-4)
21. Middle Tennessee (18-2)
22. Arizona (16-5)
23. Florida State (19-5)
24. Texas (16-6)
25. South Florida (20-4)