UConn dynasty not over yet thanks to Paige Bueckers; South Carolina-UCLA matchup would be must-see

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Women's Hall of Fame Showcase featured six teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, and the competition didn't disappoint. While there weren't any upsets as has been the case most weekends of the season so far, there were three quality basketball contests involving six teams likely to make noise in the 2024 NCAA tournament.

“You can’t turn on a women’s game right now and be bored,” North Carolina head coach and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) president Courtney Banghart said. “It’s just not possible.”

No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 UCLA and No. 17 UConn all walked out of Mohegan Sun Arena with résumé-building wins as teams turn toward conference games this month. Here’s what we learned from seven hours of elite basketball in Connecticut on Sunday.

UConn isn’t done

Paige Bueckers turned a mourning into a block party, making a statement that UConn's quest for another deep NCAA tournament run is far from over. The entire team looked more hungry than they had in recent games, and Bueckers was in classic Naismith-winner mode even if there are issues still to be cleaned up.

She scored a game-high 26 points, 17 in the first half, and pumped stats into every part of the box score. Defensively, she was stout. The 5-foot-11 guard had three of the team’s 10 steals and four of the team’s six blocks. It bested her previous career-high of two.

When asked if they know their wingspans, Aaliyah Edwards jested that Bueckers’ was “probably at this point like 8 feet” given her blocks stat. Nika Mühl said she counted five blocks. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said Bueckers looked more engaged defensively, and the redshirt junior said she sought to create chaos defensively to fuel her offense.

“I feel like when I’m playing aggressive on defense, that’s when I’m playing my best,” Bueckers said.

The Huskies have lacked bite defensively against the nation’s best teams. NC State scored 92, Texas scored 80 and UCLA scored 78 on them. When they allow fewer than 70 points, they’ve won. They scored 21 points off 19 UNC turnovers and played one of their best quarters in the third after entering the half tied.

Freshman KK Arnold secured back-to-back steals and Bueckers added one for UConn to score six of their eight-point run out of the half. They took a 44-36 lead, won the third quarter 29-13 and kept the Tar Heels at bay late to win.

Offensively, UConn had 20 assists for only the second time this season. The Huskies are averaging 16.2 apg, the worst of any UConn team in a decade and the first time in that span they’ve ranked out of the top 10 nationally. But Bueckers, praised for court vision, had only one assists and Auriemma wants to see more for the Huskies to succeed.

“We have to find a way to get more people consistently engaged around her,” he said. “If she’s not getting enough assists, that means we’re not doing a good job of moving without the ball or she [would] find where we are. And that’s been a serious problem for quite some time now.”

Give us UCLA vs. South Carolina in March

Watching UCLA and South Carolina back-to-back raised even more interest in what a direct matchup would look like between the two similarly constructed rosters. Especially since they’ll likely retain their top two spots in the AP Top 25 poll on Monday.

The addition of 6-7 center Lauren Betts considerably changed No. 2 UCLA's offense from the team that lost to South Carolina in the 2023 Sweet 16. It flows best when it goes through her and she paced the Bruins with 18 points, shooting 9-of-10, in the first half of their 95-78 win against No. 20 Florida State. The undersized Seminoles, who don't have a player taller than 6-3, were hesitant to go into the paint on her.

Florida State tightened up its defense in the second half, but Betts’ presence is its own dynamic. Even when she’s not scoring for UCLA, she’s creating space and opportunities for the talented backcourt that can knock it down at a high clip and rebound. She had zero points in the third against Florida State while Angela Dugalić (eight points, 3-of-6), Kiki Rice (seven points, 3-of-4) and Charisma Osborne (five points) answered every Seminoles push.

South Carolina plays through 6-7 center Kamilla Cardoso, who scored a team-high 17 points in 25 minutes while dealing with foul trouble. South Carolina outlasted No. 11 Utah 78-69. The Gamecocks have more perimeter threats than last season's squad with transfer Te-Hina Paopao and star freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley leading them early. The two were a combined 10-of-16.

The marquee matchup is Betts and Cardoso, both 6-7 centers who face few equals in height. Cardoso scores a large portion of her buckets off lob passes because of opponents’ lack of height in the frontcourt, but that won’t be as easy against UCLA. Both backcourts knock down big shots at a good clip and each have deep benches that can give quality minutes. UCLA’s defense wasn’t as strong as South Carolina’s on Sunday, an issue UCLA head coach Cori Close said could be better.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said her squad, as with most, will only get better as the season continues rolling along. So will UCLA. It’s not unfathomable they meet in the Final Four.

Utah is going to be OK with Alissa Pili leading the way

Utah has Alissa Pili, other teams don’t, and if it wasn’t clear before Sunday why that’s such a big deal, it is now.

Pili, a 6-2 senior forward, provided the majority of Utah's scoring in the first half against South Carolina, even while playing limited minutes in foul trouble. She scored 37 points in the 78-69 loss to No. 1 South Carolina, shooting 15-of-23 (65.2%) and was a threat from the perimeter with three 3s.

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said nothing Pili does surprises her anymore, and the team has had the most success playing through the 2022 transfer. She played for three years at USC. But how much success Pili and the Utes had against the country’s top team without guard Gianna Kneepkens was, as much as Roberts doesn’t like the idea of it, a moral victory.

The coaching staff is in adjustment mode after Kneepkens, their second-leading scorer, underwent season-ending surgery this week. Utah is also without Issy Palmer, who started three games. Roberts said much of the offense will have to fall on Pili, who scored 31 against Saint Joseph’s this week in their first game without Kneepkens.

“Teams are not going to be surprised by that,” Roberts said. “And so we're gonna have to be, you know, clever with game plan as to how to score other points.”

They’ll have to receive more shooting from the perimeter, where the guard did her most damage. Roberts wasn’t happy with that against South Carolina. Forward Dasia Young scored 12 and the three starting guards combined for 18 points going 7-of-24.

“Those guys need to bring it along, and they will,” Roberts said. “And I think you have to credit South Carolina's defense. They make things hard, and shots are little rush and just a little more pressure than normal.”

Even without that, Utah put South Carolina on upset watch and was within a single possession with less than three minutes to play. The Gamecocks, who did this twice last week against Duke and North Carolina, made the plays down the stretch to win. Pili said Kneepkens brings big plays in pressure situations, which Utah could have used and needs to find.

“I hope we don’t see them [Utah] in the tournament and whoever does, good luck to them,” Staley said.

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