Guards to take center stage when ex-Big East rivals UConn, Syracuse meet in women's NCAA Tournament


STORRS, Conn. — UConn has struggled this season when playing against some of the nation’s best guards.

Big games from players such as North Carolina State’s Saniya Rivers (33 points), UCLA’s Kiki Rice (24 points) Texas’ Rori Harmon (27 points) and Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo (34 points) have all resulted in losses for the Huskies (30-5).

But if No. 3 seed Connecticut is to advance to a 29th straight Sweet 16 on Monday night, it will have to get by another backcourt star in Dyaisha Fair, the unquestioned leader of No. 6 seed Syracuse (24-7).

The third-team All-American is averaging 22.3 points and shook off an injury scare to score 32 on Saturday, including her team’s final 13, in a come-from-behind win over Arizona. She describes herself as an instinctual player and said the added emotion of knowing she is one loss from ending her college career will make her a tough matchup on Monday.

“The defense will always be on their toes because you don’t know if I’ll just shoot the ball,” she said. “You don’t know if I’m going to make a pass. You don’t know if I’m going to go by or try to get by. You just never know. I say that because I never know myself.”

The 5-foot-5 fifth-year player has scored 3,383 points in her career and needs just 10 more to catch Jackie Stiles for fourth place on the Division I scoring list.

“It might be like hey, can we keep her under 20, that would be a great accomplishment,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Sometimes one player can beat you. One player can be that dominant. I think she is that dominant.”

But UConn has its own dominant player in first-team All-American Paige Bueckers, who is averaging 27.8 points and nine rebounds in the postseason. She scored 28 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and had seven assists in the Huskies opening-round win over Jackson State.

Auriemma said he believes Bueckers has been the best player in the nation this postseason not just in the numbers she’s been putting up, but in her efficiency and decision making.

“I personally feel more secure having her on the floor,” senior guard Nika Muhl said. “Knowing that whenever you pass her the ball, she’s going to do something great with it, just like it’s been the whole season, but especially now when it matters so much more. It’s huge. And you can definitely feel the difference in our team.”

Syracuse coach Felisha Legette-Jack said Bueckers will certainly be the focal point of the Orange’s defensive efforts.

“I just think that in order to respect somebody like a Paige, like UConn’s team, you have to meet them every single possession with the PEP, which is ‘passion every play,’” she said. “And you have to stay locked on ready, have a dribble live stance, where she can take the three, she can go to the nail or she can get to the layup line. And you’ve got to be ready to go on all three of those levels.”

The two stars, of course, insist the game won’t be decided in a one-on-one matchup between the two.

“I know for media purposes, everybody has to hype up the matchups,” Bueckers said. “But it’s definitely the focus heading into the game tomorrow to not let one singular person beat us.”

HISTORY

This will be the 52nd meeting between the former Big East rivals. UConn leads the series 39-13. The teams last played in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, an 83-47 rout in favor of the Huskies.

OTHER MILESTONES

UConn post Aaliyah Edwards needs 12 more rebounds to reach 1,000 for her career and Muhl is just one assist from tying Moriah Jefferson’s program record of 658 for her career.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness



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