HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — UConn celebrated it’s ninth straight regular-season conference title on Wednesday, a championship the players said they appreciate a bit more than they may have in years past.
The Huskies, who clinched the top seed in the Big East Tournament with a 69-38 win over Marquette, had to do it with star Paige Bueckers on the bench injured for much of the season and another seven players missing at least two games with injury or illness.
“I think it definitely means more this season than any other season that we’ve gotten it in the last four years,” senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa said. “I think just because of the adversity we faced, the challenges, the injuries, just trying to have to to grind out every single game. It definitely means a lot more.”
Evina Westbrook came off the bench to score 17 points and Azzi Fudd added 13 for UConn (20-5, 14-1), which has also won 20 games for a 29th straight year.
Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards each added 10 points for Connecticut, helping extend their current winning streak to five games
Lauren Van Kleunen had 12 points for Marquette (18-9, 11-7), which is headed in the opposite direction, having lost four of its last five games, including a 72-58 loss to the Huskies earlier this month in Milwaukee.
“You know we’ve had a heck of stretch,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy. “UConn twice in a week and some of the top teams. I think there is still a lot of great basketball to play.”
UConn led by 17 points at the halftime, but was held scoreless for the first 3 1/2 minutes of the third quarter. A 7-0 Marquette run cut the Husky lead to 31-21.
But Connecticut responded with an 8-0 run of their own to take back control of the game.
A 3-point play by Westbrook put the Huskies up 51-25 after three quarters and a 3-pointer from Fudd gave the Huskies their first 30-point lead at 59-29.
UConn’s defense held Marquette to just 35% shooting.
“I’m proud of our team, especially this year and the way it played out,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “It could have, really, really really gone sideways and it didn’t.”
Marquette: The Golden Eagles remain in fifth place in the Big East standings ahead of Seton Hall, which sits at 10-8 in the conference. The top five teams will get a bye into the second round of next month’s conference tournament.
UConn: Bueckers, who has missed 19 games since going down with a left knee injury in early December, dressed for the first time since her injury and fully participated in pre-game warmups. Auriemma said his star will see her doctor on Thursday and her playing status will be determined after that.
“Punxsutawney Paige,” Auriemma joked. “If she sees her her shadow, it might be two more weeks of rehab, I don’t know.”
Forward Dorka Juhasz left the game after taking an elbow to the mouth in the fourth quarter. Auriemma said she received stitches, but is not expected to miss any time.
STAT OF THE GAME
The Huskies, who played many games this season with just six players, saw their bench, led by Westbrook, contribute 27 points to just 10 for Marquette’s reserves.
“It felt weird to have so many people back,” she said.
Edwards and Westbrook were asked about being the only two Huskies to have played in every game this season and immediately began banging on the wooden interview table.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles make the short trip to Providence to take on the Friars on Friday night.
UConn: The Huskies are back at the XL center on Friday to host St. John’s