UConn women send message as they defend Big East crown

Geno Auriemma took the stage at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Monday night, and even he paused to savor the moment Sarah Kustok asked him the question:

“What’s the deal with the UConn Huskies program in March?”

It’s no surprise that Connecticut clinched its conference record for the 21st Big East championship on Monday, wearing down Maddy Siegrist and Villanova with a 67-56 win. But the journey there – the loss of Paige Bueckers and top freshman Ice Brady to season-ending injuries, the loss of Azzi Fudd for an extended period with a knee injury, Auriemma’s loss of his mother Marciella – was one UConn had never traveled before.

So on Monday night, after the packed-house win in Uncasville, it was reason to take a break in the Hall of Famers and reflect on this question that’s been asked for the past three decades.

“I think the tradition that we’ve built here, the expectations that we’ve built … the kids that come here understand that,” Auriemma said. “Because it was so hard, this one probably feels even more rewarding. Not that the other championships don’t, but there’s something very special about this one. I’m really proud of it because it could have been easy to get away from us.”

UConn Coach Geno Auriemma on Huskies Conquering Big East Championship: ‘These Kids Know When It’s March’

UConn Coach Geno Auriemma on Huskies Conquering Big East Championship: 'These Kids Know When It's March'

After eight straight games decided by 10 points or fewer to end the regular season, UConn in the Big East Tournament ran through Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova all by double digits, beating the three opponents by a combined 70 points.

Monday night was definitely the biggest challenge, but the Huskies commanded the Wildcats behind the frontcourt duo of Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhasz, who combined for 35 points and 23 rebounds for the win.

Edwards, the 6-foot-3 junior who was named the Big East Most Improved Player and was a unanimous first-team performer of all conferences, added more hardware Monday by securing the conference tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award .

With a combination of 58 points and 40 rebounds over the course of three wins, Edwards continued a huge year, taking on the role Auriemma thought she could have when she first joined the program.

“You look at our best teams, whether it’s Rebecca (Lobo), Kara (Wolters), Breanna (Stewart), Napheesa (Collier) and the list goes on and on and a great follow-up was so key to our success ‘ said Auriemma.

UConn Women’s Hoops Lift Big East Championship Trophy, Aaliyah Edward Wins Most Outstanding Player

UConn Women's Hoops Lift Big East Championship Trophy, Aaliyah Edward Wins Most Outstanding Player

There’s no doubt Connecticut owns that again, but the area of ​​question with this team competing in the Big East tournament was Fudd’s status and how the perimeter pieces would fare.

Fudd may still be feeling comfortable after missing 14 games before the Big East tournament, but the excitement she provides can’t be overstated. Much like Bucker’s return late in the regular season last year and helped lead UConn to a 14th straight Final Four, Fudd’s return carries that sentiment because without her, the Huskies’ winning streak had never been in more jeopardy.

The sophomore superstar finished with 11 points on Monday, knocking down all three second-half three-pointers and helping to put the game out of reach for Villanova.

Fudd’s presence helps take the pressure off of Lou Lopez Senechal, who Auriemma said was such a key to the Huskies’ season after the game that they wouldn’t have won the Big East regular-season title without her. Their consistency kept UConn from fading, and it showed in this tournament run with three straight 14-point performances in wins. The Fairfield transfer may have been included for just one season after four years with the Stags, but the way the French-born has contributed has been remarkable.

“You see how we overcome challenges and how we build that, and I’m really excited for what’s to come,” said Lopez Senechal. “We are a team that is always ready for March. Even when we have a difficult phase, we know how to overcome it. That’s why we’re here now.”

Highlights of the UConn vs. Villanova Women’s Big East Championship

Highlights of the UConn vs. Villanova Women's Big East Championship

And where the Huskies stand is a 29-5 mark that leads the country with a total of 11 Top 25 NET wins after defeating a Villanova team that was ranked No. 10 on Monday morning’s AP Top 25 and a NET ranking holds of 12.

Ranked 14th in last week’s NCAA Top 16 reveal, the Wildcats have still won 19 of their last 22 games, with the only three losses in the series going to Connecticut. Denise Dillon’s 28-6 team is still poised to host NCAA tournament games next weekend at the Finneran Pavilion, while Siegrist will have more history in mind after breaking the Big East’s all-time and single-game goalscoring records this year and Villanova set up. With 34 consecutive games to 20 or more points, Siegrist is just one step away from tying Kelsey Plum’s record of 35 consecutive games to 20 or more points, which she set in 2016-17.

On Monday night, however, it was an all-too-familiar sight after an unprecedented set of circumstances for a Connecticut program that has grappled with anything and everything related to obstacles for the past two years. And yet, the Huskies’ championship DNA has prevailed, as that is what Auriemma has built despite changing names and times.

“It’s getting harder every year, and that’s what it’s supposed to be,” said Auriemma. “We are fortunate to have children who are willing to pay the price for how difficult it is. When you have a group of really good kids that you enjoy being with and they enjoy being around, here’s what happens.”

What happened Monday for UConn was an opportunity to stop and appreciate what that wild ride was like as the Huskies controlled a top 10 team to win a championship. In doing so, they showed the rest of the country that with Fudd back and the March experience across the roster, the Final Four streak could indeed remain intact and that the No. 1 seed a region has to share with them is from the selection board received no favors.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of roles, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to commentating on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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