Thursday didn't disappoint. Michigan junior Naz Hillmon went off for 50 points, the most by any women's college basketball player this season. South Carolina sophomore Aliyah Boston notched her second career triple-double. And No. 25 Tennessee took third-ranked UConn to the wire before Paige Bueckers helped pull out a 67-61 victory in the Huskies' first trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 15 years. ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel, Charlie Creme and D'Arcy Maine break down the action.
Freshman Paige Bueckers shot 1-for-10 from the field through three quarters but then -- limping on an ankle she had rolled just minutes earlier -- hit a 3-pointer (and the game's final points) with time expiring on the shot clock and 28 seconds to play. How will history evaluate Bueckers' performance?
Creme: From the moment Bueckers signed to play at UConn it seemed a foregone conclusion that she would eventually be mentioned among the Huskies' all-time greats. The question was when would that ascension begin. It began Thursday.
Even if the rivalry with Tennessee doesn't carry the same significance as it once did, it's still a big deal that Bueckers hit the jumper that sealed the win for UConn. That won't be forgotten. She shook off a sore ankle and a terrible shooting performance to make the biggest shot of the game, and it will stand as the night she officially established herself as the Huskies' next star. Thursday's shot -- a dagger on a bad ankle in a rivalry with such history -- will be included in any highlight package encapsulating her career.
This win was really important for UConn. It was the first true road test for a young team, and if the Huskies are to be one of the best teams in the country, they have to win a game like this. Without Bueckers' late 3-pointer or her eight rebounds and seven assists (and only two turnovers), this might have become the Lady Vols' night to shine.
Voepel: UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after the game that Bueckers keeps telling him she would rather pass the ball than shoot it. Which made me chuckle thinking of UConn legend Sue Bird, the WNBA's all-time assists leader who -- as much as she's revered for her playmaking -- has also hit some gargantuan shots in both college and pro play. It's not fair to compare anyone to Bird -- who scored 25 points in her first visit to Knoxvillle in January 2000 -- but it's kind of inevitable for all UConn guards.
The bottom line is, even the best passers have to to be scoring threats, too, if they want to make the most of their playmaking ability. And they have to be willing to take the big shot in clutch moments if that's the right play to make. Bueckers was ready for that responsibility. And I have a feeling we'll remember this as the first of what will eventually be many times that she has a moment like that on national television in a marquee game.
"When Paige sprained her ankle and she came out, then she wanted to go back in," Auriemma said. "I wasn't completely sure yet. And she basically said, 'Put me back in.' And the other coaches were yelling, 'Put her back in.'
"One thing I keep reiterating all the time is, if Paige ever becomes a little more selfish, I think we'll be a much better team. So I'm glad she didn't pass up that open 3 she had. That was pretty big."
Maine: We're just hours removed from the game and I've already mostly forgotten about Bueckers' shooting woes and remember just one thing: THE shot. I have a feeling that will be the singular moment fans remember about this game years from now, and it will be viewed as the crowning moment of UConn's latest superstar in a long and esteemed line of them. History favors the bold, and no one was bolder than Bueckers in that moment.
For the second straight year, UConn's fourth-quarter performance turned a close game with Tennessee into a Huskies win. What did we learn about UConn on Thursday?
Creme: Two things immediately come to mind -- one bad, one good. First, the bad: The Huskies are young and still play like it at times. The missed free throws, the longer-than-normal stretches that lacked the traditional UConn crispness and the inconsistency in finishing plays were a large part of this game's narrative. The Huskies left a lot of points on the court that could have made this a much easier win.
Now the good: Despite all that the Huskies won a road game with a roster that is 75% freshmen and sophomores against a top-25 opponent. Despite all the imperfections and being in a situation most of these players hadn't been in before, UConn still found a way to win.
The three veterans came up big. Christyn Williams scored a game-high 20 points, Evina Westbrook scored 15 and hit the two biggest jumpers in the second half other than Bueckers', and Olivia Nelson-Ododa had two huge blocked shots in the fourth quarter. That leadership paved the way.
Voepel: Along with seeing that Bueckers isn't going to back away from any challenge, we saw that her teammates completely trust her and that they were ready for some of their own big moments.
Earlier this week, Auriemma tried to downplay the storyline of Westbrook coming back to Tennessee, where she played two seasons before transferring to UConn. But he acknowledged Thursday he talked to her about it before the game.
Westbrook said he told her not to let her emotions get the best of her and not get out of character, and to use any negative vibes the crowd directed at her to energize herself. That's a lot easier said than done, but she did it with 15 points, five rebounds and four assists.
We also saw that Auriemma, always known for some expert tinkering, made the right calls against Tennessee. The Huskies went to a zone defense more than they have in any other game this year, he said, and it was effective.
Westbrook's back-to-back 3-pointers give UConn the advantage
Evina Westbrook drills back-to-back triples for UConn to regain control of the game.
Maine: In a season in which the Huskies had seen their two biggest games canceled due to the virus, Thursday's win was proof this young team can win the big games on the road. Sounds obvious but the Huskies hadn't had the opportunity to do that until this point.
It also spoke to the depth of this team and the ability of multiple players to step up big when needed when Bueckers was struggling. As Charlie mentioned, the three juniors played crucial roles down the stretch and showed they would not shy away on the biggest stage. For Westbrook to have that type of revenge/statement game against her former team speaks volumes about who she is as a player and her ability to block out the noise and keep her nerves in check.
What did we learn about Tennessee?
Creme: Heading into the game I felt the Lady Vols were better than their No. 25 spot in the rankings. Tennessee was my No. 20 overall team in the latest Bracketology, and after tonight I am convinced my placement is the more accurate assessment. The improvement of players like Rae Burrell and Tamari Key is obvious. Tennessee was nearly as good as UConn -- when is the last time any of us could say that -- and could have won this game.
The Lady Vols still need to execute in the game's key moments; they scored only 12 fourth-quarter points against UConn. Those issues were also present in last week's loss to Georgia when they blew a big lead. The turnover problems of a year ago have improved, but they still come at inopportune times. Jordan Horston (two points against UConn) and Rennia Davis (4 of 12 shooting) still aren't playing to the levels of which they are capable. If that happens then the Lady Vols (9-3) should start winning some of these games.
Voepel: I like Kellie Harper's leadership. She's a former point guard, so of course turnovers bug her. But she knows the Lady Vols have made progress there, and she has a way of giving feedback that is the kind of constructive criticism her team will listen to but not be discouraged by.
Lady Vols fight valiantly, come up short vs. UConn
No. 25 Tennessee fights hard, but Rae Burrell's 18 points not enough in a tough 67-61 loss to No. 3 UConn.
After the Lady Vols' loss to Georgia, Harper said she was "seething" because she attributed their lost lead in that game to a lapse in effort. She said that definitely wasn't the case against UConn. This loss was about lapses in execution, which were critical because there is so little margin for error against the Huskies.
As Charlie said, Tennessee could have won this game. We didn't feel that way last year, when despite their halftime lead, the Lady Vols scored just 14 points in the second half and lost by 15. This Tennessee team is better, and I think they can be irritated by this loss but also inspired by it.
Maine: Turnovers plagued Tennessee -- UConn converted 16 points off of 14 Lady Vols turnovers -- and as Harper said, the team "just couldn't find a bucket" in the final quarter. But there was still a lot to feel good about for Tennessee.
Yes, the Lady Vols' fourth quarter left much to be desired, but even when trailing by nine (the game's largest deficit) with 4:47 to play, Tennessee didn't back down. Freshman Marta Suárez responded with a huge 3-pointer and the Lady Vols went on a 6-0 run soon after to make it a one-possession game. They couldn't get it done but it wasn't for lack of effort or desire. This is a team with a ton of fight.
At halftime, Auriemma was critical of UConn's shooting. The Huskies were 5-for-12 at the foul line and missed wide-open jump shots. "We can't shoot," Auriemma said. "I said that (in) Game 1, and I'm saying it again: We can't shoot." Is that the quote of a frustrated coach in the moment, or a real problem that UConn should be concerned about this season?
Voepel: I think this is a legitimate worry, and not just Auriemma being nitpicky because he wants perfection. He said Monday that he's usually big on aesthetics, that he always wants his teams to look a certain way in regard to style of play and execution. But not this season.
"I'm probably at a point now where I really don't care how we look," he said. "I just want us to play a game and win that game. This idea of 'Yeah, we look like we're a really good team?' Nope."
Auriemma is known for being humorously hyperbolic about his team's shortcomings, but it doesn't sound like that now. This isn't a team of multiple dead-eye shooters the way many of his teams have been, and he knows it.
Now, that doesn't mean they aren't going to get better. And, as mentioned, Bueckers still made the biggest shot of the game. But Tennessee showed some of UConn's flaws, and you can be sure fellow SEC schools Arkansas, which just added the Huskies as an opponent on Jan. 28, and South Carolina, which visits Storrs on Feb. 8, will take a look at what the Lady Vols did.
Maine: I mean, did you see some of those jumper attempts? We all know Auriemma tends to exaggerate these issues, especially during these types of halftime or postgame interviews, but he was accurate on Thursday. His team really couldn't shoot. It would be easy to say this was a result of nerves from playing a big opponent on the road for the first time all season, but that's likely not all of it. As Mechelle pointed out, this just isn't the sharpshooting team we've seen in years past, and the Huskies have been able to hide that slightly against some less-challenging opponents.
With the lack of consistency in playing this season, and the frequent starts and stops, that's harder to fix than normal, but Auriemma has to at least be pleased by the buckets that really counted in the game's final moments.
On Thursday, Michigan's Naz Hillmon went off for 50 points -- without even attempting a 3-pointer; she hit 20-for-30 field goals and 10 of 14 free throws -- and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston had a triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks. What do you like about their games? And how has Boston stepped up recently?
Creme: I said earlier this week that South Carolina is the No. 1 overall team in Bracketology. I then laid out all the statistical proof to back that up, but the fact that the Gamecocks have Boston and no one else does is another pretty good reason.
Her triple-double on Thursday is indicative of how much of the offense runs through Boston and just how much of a defensive force she is. Georgia did what it needed to do on defense in holding South Carolina to 62 points. Boston was the chief reason the Bulldogs only scored 50 and never posed much of a threat to the Gamecocks.
Naz Hillmon sets Michigan scoring record with 50 points in game
Michigan women's basketball player Naz Hillmon sets a Michigan scoring record, putting up 50 points in a loss to Ohio State.
One clue as to why Hillmon has become such a dominant player lies in the question above: "without even attempting a 3-pointer." Hillmon has become the third-leading scorer in the country (26.1 PPG) without taking one all season.
In her third year at Michigan, Hillmon has figured out what kind of player she is and plays to her strengths. She's highly efficient and a bullish offensive rebounder. Jump shots aren't necessary because Hillmon gets to wherever she wants to in the lane. No player in the country makes more 2-point field goals per game and she's second in offensive rebounding (10 of her 15 rebounds against Ohio State came on the offensive end). The fact that the Wolverines still lost the game despite Hillmon's unbelievable effort is astounding, but if she keeps putting up these kinds of numbers, Michigan won't lose much more.
Boston, Cooke duo keep Gamecocks rolling
Aliyah Boston's triple double (16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks) and Zia Cooke's 16-point night lift No. 4 South Carolina to a 62-50 win over No. 22 Georgia.
Voepel: Boston recently said she realized she needed to pick things up a bit after a conversation with coach Dawn Staley. She was having a good season, but Staley knows she's capable of greatness. And look at what Boston has done against high-quality ranked opponents in three recent victories. (I'm not including the blowout of Vanderbilt because she played just 19 minutes.)
Boston had 20 points and 12 rebounds against Kentucky, 26 and 16 against Arkansas, and then the triple-double against Georgia. That is eye-popping stuff.
"I've been really focusing on being more dominant," Boston said. "Coach in practice has been making sure I know how dominant I need to be, and I can't slack off. So I've been trying to continue with that throughout each game we've played."
As for Hillmon, as Charlie said, she's kind of the old-fashioned, "Just throw the ball in my general direction and I'll get it and score." She doesn't make the game more complicated than it needs to be, and her motor is relentless.
"Her ability to score the basketball, to catch the basketball is incredible," coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "We just started running everything for her. I've coached some really great players in my time. I've never seen a performance like that. She was pretty good against Nebraska when she had 35 and 22 [rebounds]. How is that going to happen again when she's circled on top of every team's scouting report? And she still managed to do that."
What one game are you most looking forward to this weekend, and how does it impact Bracketology?
Creme: I'm curious how Tennessee bounces back when it hosts Kentucky on Sunday in a game that will have huge ramifications on the SEC race. But the game of the weekend is Friday night between UCLA and Stanford in Santa Cruz.
This is a rematch of a game the Cardinal won fairly decisively on Dec. 21. This time it will determine whether Stanford remains a No. 1 seed in Bracketology or falls to the No. 2 line less than a week after most considered the Cardinal the clear pick as the best team in the nation.
A win for the Bruins would catapult them to the No. 2 line, giving the Pac-12 three teams as No. 2 seeds (Arizona is the other). A UCLA win also creates a cluster at the top of the conference and sets up a wild race for the Pac-12 title in the second half of the league season.