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No. 3 UConn women outlast No. 25 Tennessee 67-61

Maybe it wasn’t UConn’s best shooting performance in the history of its storied rivalry with Tennessee. Not even close. Not from the floor. Not from the free throw line.

But in terms of the resilience the third-ranked Huskies showed Thursday night at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena, visiting the stadium with the orange-and-white checkered end zones for the first time in 15 years, in terms of a comeback … this one wasn’t all that bad.

UConn, with back-to-back fourth-quarter 3-pointers from Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook to give the Huskies the lead for good, toppled No. 25 Tennessee 67-61 before 3,553 fans on Rocky Top.

Christyn Williams finished with 20 points, Westbrook had 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals and star freshman Paige Bueckers, at one point in the game mired in a 1-for-10 shooting slump, came up with her first dramatic contribution to the series by hitting a 3-point field goal with 24 seconds left in what was a two-point game at the time.

“Like I always say, you don’t lose the game off of one play,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said via Zoom video conference. “You can’t go back and say that one play cost us the game. People love to say that. You don’t generally have that. But one play, one big play, can win you the game.

“We had some really big plays by all those guys, by Christyn, the shots that (Westbrook) made … everybody made some contributions. It was good to see them do that because I wasn’t sure what we would do the first time we were faced with a game where nothing goes right.”

There were 17-lead changes, befitting the narrative of the rivalry game, being played as a part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Revival Series and as the centerpiece of “We Back Pat” week in honor of late Tennessee women’s basketball coaching legend Pat Summitt.

It was announced prior to the game that UConn’s Auriemma and Tennessee coaching counterpart Kellie (Jolly) Harper each donated $10,000 of their own money to the fundraising efforts, money that last year came from the game’s ticket sales.

Tennessee wore special jerseys for the game with Summitt’s name emblazoned on the back, while UConn sported its black jerseys with a patch honoring former UConn men’s coach and all-time Huskies ambassador Dee Rowe, who died recently.

Tennessee led 49-45 after three quarters, at which point Bueckers was 1-for-10 and starter Aubrey Griffin was on the bench with four fouls. Griffin picked up foul numbers three and four in a six-second span in the third quarter.

“I can’t think of one thing that we did well in those first three quarters,” Auriemma said. “We just hung around.”

But Williams hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to start the fourth quarter for UConn, pulling within 49-48.

The score was tied 52-all when Westbrook knocked in consecutive 3-pointers, the second giving the Huskies a 58-52 advantage. Westbrook’s two daggers began a 9-0 run for UConn, which remained unbeaten at 9-0. Olivia Nelson-Ododa followed with a free throw and Williams scored on a deft feed from Bueckers for a 61-52 lead with 4:37 to play.

Tennessee had pulled within 63-61 through what Auriemma would later refer to as a “bizarre” sequence, when Bueckers, who was on the sideline having her ankle taped, re-entered the game and hit the 3 which gave UConn a 66-61 cushion.

Bueckers finished with nine points on 3-for-14 shooting, but also added eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

“When that one came off of her hand, we all knew it was going in,” Westbrook said of Bueckers’ 3. “She knew it, the bench knew it, I feel like the crowd knew it. We instantly knew. It was a huge spark for us in the game.”

“I’m glad she didn’t pass up that open 3 that she had,” Auriemma said. “That was pretty big. The other guys (on the UConn team), they were the happiest guys on the floor because they didn’t really want to take that shot. When Paige caught it, she was obviously wide open and she wasn’t afraid to take it and maybe that’s what she’s all about.”

The game was separated by just one point after the first half, with Tennessee leading 35-34.

The Lady Vols boasted the game’s most decisive contributor to that juncture, however, in junior Rae Burrell, who entered the game as the team’s leading scorer with 16.7 points per game. Burrell had 14 points in the first half, shooting 5-for-11 overall, 3-for-4 from 3-point range.

Williams led UConn with nine points in the half and Westbrook, who played for Tennessee for two seasons before transferring to UConn last year, sitting out the season due to the NCAA transfer rule, had eight.

Tennessee, which averages 46.4 rebounds per game, approximately 15 per game more than its opponents so far this season, outrebounded UConn 24-15 in the first half and had nine offensive rebounds to UConn’s three.

Tennessee took a 32-31 lead on basket by Tamari Key with 1:35 remaining in the half and Tennessee’s Destiny Salary and UConn’s Westbrook traded 3-pointers prior to halftime. The Lady Vols extended it to 49-45 after three quarters, the first time this season UConn has trailed after three.

UConn, which also got 10 points from Griffin, who made her second straight start, shot 41% percent for the game (28.57% in the third quarter) and was 7-for-25 from 3 or 28%. The Huskies were 10-for-21 from the free throw line.

Burrell finished with 18 points and eight rebounds to lead Tennessee (9-3).

“I think our shots weren’t falling pretty much the entire game. Our main focus was sticking together and making big plays and that’s exactly what we did,” Williams said.

“Obviously we’re really disappointed, really disappointed,” Tennessee’s Harper said. “… Just disappointed we didn’t come out of here with a win. We could have won the game. We felt that way going in and we felt that way throughout the game. When you can’t pull those off, you know, it stings.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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