Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma keeps pushing for Paige Bueckers and freshman Azzi Fudd to shoot more.
Games like Sunday are only going to make the Hall of Fame coach more persistent — especially considering how it helped the second-ranked Huskies grind through a tough tournament game against a ranked opponent.
Bueckers had 21 points while Fudd had a season-high 18 on six 3-pointers to help Connecticut hold off No. 23 South Florida 60-53 in Sunday’s semifinals of the inaugural women’s Battle 4 Atlantis. Both hit big shots during the second-half run that got the Huskies out of a surprising hole after squandering a 13-point first-half lead, helping the Huskies advance into an early marquee matchup against top-ranked South Carolina for the Atlantis title.
“I think being a great teammate is shooting every time you’re open when you’re a great shooter,” Auriemma said. “For young kids, I think it’s somewhat natural at times to not want to put yourself in that situation. … Some kids just take a little bit longer to kind of see it. It’s not a bad thing, it’s what it is.”
The Huskies (3-0) had to fight to the final minutes to maintain a perfect mark against the Bulls (3-2). In addition to losing the first-half margin, UConn squandered an eight-point lead midway through the third after giving up an 11-0 run to fall behind 45-42.
Bueckers made 8 of 16 shots, her biggest being when she dribbled away from the corner and hit a turnaround 3 over Elisa Pinzan to tie it at 45 at the end of the third quarter.
The Huskies got the ball to start the fourth, and Fudd followed with a straightaway 3 — essentially a six-point possession that took momentum back from the surging Bulls. That was the start of a 14-2 burst, which included Bueckers scoring on a cut off a perfect feed from Olivia Nelson-Ododa in the post and Fudd adding another 3 to push the lead to 56-47 with 4:28 left.
Fudd finished 6 of 9 from 3-point range after scoring just 12 points on 13 shots through the first two games of the season.
“Coach has been telling me to shoot and every game so far I’ve been overthinking,” Fudd said. “… And when I got the ball and my defender’s hands weren’t there, to just shoot.”
Elena Tsineke scored 17 points to lead South Florida, which shot 37% but just 4 of 13 (31%) in the final quarter when the game hung in the balance. Bethy Mununga added 15 points and eight boards, helping South Florida control the glass and take a 15-6 edge in offensive rebounds.
“I thought we defended, we made multiple efforts in a lot of plays,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “It was your typical probably second or third weekend NCAA Tournament game.”
USF: The Bulls had no trouble in its tournament opener, rolling past Syracuse 77-53 behind a double-double from Mununga. Fernandez had said afterward the team would need to manage Connecticut’s runs, not letting a one or two baskets turn into a flurry of 12 or 14 unanswered points. For the most part, South Florida did that, most notably with its 11-0 run late in the third.
“In that fourth quarter, it’s tied and now everything’s magnified,” Fernandez said.
Connecticut: The Huskies won the first game in the inaugural tournament at the Atlantis resort, blowing the game open in the third quarter to beat Minnesota 88-58. This one was a tougher battle, with Bueckers and Fudd having to carry the offensive load in a slower-paced game for a team that just couldn’t get loose in transition.
Connecticut improved to 33-0 all-time against South Florida going back to their time together in the Big East and American Athletic conferences, though this was the first of those meetings decided by fewer than 10 points.
Bueckers had no turnovers through the first two games at the point,, then committed her first with a throwaway at 7:21 of the second quarter.
“She didn’t stop there, though, right?” Auriemma quipped. “She made up for it.”
Bueckers followed with another less than two minutes later and finished with three.
USF: The Bulls will face No. 9 Oregon, which lost to South Carolina on Sunday, in Monday’s third-place game.
Connecticut: The Huskies meet the top-ranked Gamecocks, who beat the Ducks on Sunday, in Monday’s championship game.